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2012-12-10 12:04

A LESSON LEARNT?: The recent tunnel collapse in Japan should be a wake up call for other places that have ageing infrastructure that needs maintenance.

Hiroshi Hiyama

TOKYO, Japan - A deadly tunnel collapse in Japan should serve as a wake-up to developed nations whose ageing infrastructure is in dire need of updating, experts say.

Trillions of dollars need to be spent around the globe just to stand still, they warn, adding current fiscal belt-tightening is pushing vital repairs dangerously far down the list.

NINE PEOPLE DIED

Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute, said: "Maintenance work is often neglected because you cannot easily see the urgent need for it. The recent tunnel accident may be the trigger that improves public awareness about the issue and presses authorities to do something”

Nine people were killed when concrete ceiling panels crashed on to three vehicles, setting at least one ablaze inside the Sasago tunnel, 80km west of Tokyo on December 2 2012.

The cause of the cave-in is not yet known but an initial probe has pointed to decay in the fixtures that held up the more than one-tonne panels to the roof of the 35-year-old tunnel. The government ordered immediate inspections of all structures with the same design and Japanese police began a criminal negligence investigation.

The incident sent jitters acrossJapan, one of the most engineered countries in the world, which saw a huge infrastructure boom in the decades after the Second World War. At least eight percent of the 155 000 major bridges in Japan are already more than 50 years old, the infrastructure ministry said. By 2030, more than half of them will be.

Nagahama said strong political will was necessary if sufficient money was ever going to be put aside for much-needed updates and maintenance. The ministry estimates it needs to spend 190-trillion yen (about R20-trillion) over the next five decades just to maintain the infrastructure it already has. But with debts more than double its GDP, which Japan's shrinking workforce cannot easily repay, finding cash will be tough.

DETERIORATION

The tunnel collapse was not the first time a lack of investment had caused problems. In the US city of Minneapolis an eight-lane, 33m high bridge collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that an equivalent of about R19-trillion is needed over the next decade simply to prevent resources such as bridges, roads, waterways and power cables from deteriorating.

London's transport plans for the year's 2012 Olympic Games were thrown into disarray when one of the main arteries linking Heathrow airport and the capital had to be closed in December 2011 for emergency repairs. Cables holding together the concrete Hammersmith flyover, built in the 1960's, had been weakened by a steady seepage of salt water, a problem that needed five months of traffic-disrupting work to fix.

Civil structural engineer Aleksandar Pavic said with only periodic inspections, Britain gets taken by surprise when its infrastructure - some of which dates to the 19th century - suddenly failed.

Pavic added: "We don't know what our structures are doing. We don't understand what is happening on them. That's why things are falling apart, quite unexpectedly”.

Anybody in the South African ANC government listening?



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