Doors to mining opened by women engineers and scientists

Women working as consulting engineers and scientists are opening doors of opportunity in mining, breaking down discriminatory attitudes and creating role models for the future.

According to Vis Reddy, managing director of SRK Consulting, the consulting engineering sector has been an important contributor to gender transformation in mining.

“The growing number of women in SRK Consulting who occupy senior professional and leadership positions helps to set benchmarks in the sector,” said Reddy. “We hope to be sending out the right message of gender equality, as industry sees the critical role that women are now playing in advising clients on important technical and other issues.”

Change of this magnitude, however, does not happen on its own, he warned. It requires constant and ongoing commitment to removing barriers and supporting professional growth among young professionals.

“Starting with a focus on merit and capability, we continue working internally to make our business a place where women work as equals and can advance according to their contribution,” he said. “It is also vital that we support external initiatives for women in mining; in the long run, these are key to making the sector more attractive as career opportunity.”

SRK has engaged actively with the International Women in Mining Mentorship Programme, putting forward its own staff as mentors and mentees while also sponsoring the organisation as a whole. Reddy himself is mentoring technical services manager working for a gold mining company based in Greece, who is expanding her professional role into leadership. Younger engineers and scientists within SRK are also being mentored by experienced leaders in the sector.

Years of steady progress have seen the proportion of women at partner level within the company rise to almost 20%. Faster progress is on the horizon, with most of SRK’s associate partners now being women – indicating a strong supply line for leadership for the future.

“With two women on our board, including our financial director, we have made encouraging progress,” he said. “Of our production units, two out of eight are headed by women, and four of our seven support departments are led by women.”

He highlighted that transformation efforts needed to be multi-faceted, including racial diversity. This was all part of making the workplace more inclusive – which in turn could change people’s perception of mining.

“It wasn’t too long ago that mining – and even SRK and the consulting engineering sector itself – was very male-dominated, and with white males at that,” he noted. “As this changes, mining will undoubtedly become a more inviting environment for a broader spectrum of our skilled workforce – where the advancement opportunities for women, for instance, is more clearly visible among the leadership.”

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Building momentum for innovative engineering solutions

In the real world, breakthrough innovations seldom happen by chance or luck; they are best built steadily from years of experience and structured collaboration, according to global engineers and scientists SRK Consulting.

In today’s digital world, there are opportunities aplenty for apps, gadgets and clever inventions. The real challenge, however, is to build continuous improvement into a company’s workstream – so that staff and customers alike can build on experience and past achievements for a smarter future. According to SRK Consulting managing director Vis Reddy, the company has for many years been recognised for its technical innovation; now it is taking the process up a notch.

“As a global network, SRK has always believed in the power of collaboration – especially across disciplines and global regions – and the digital era has offered tools to enhance this,” said Reddy. “With the organisation now spread across 45 offices worldwide, it is not always easy to leverage the full extent of all the experience on offer.”

Since about six years ago, the company has been actively consolidating its efforts to further entrench innovation through systematic collaboration across practices and countries. In South Africa, this includes regular innovation workshops, which have in recent years embraced online communication. These platforms have also allowed greater international engagement, networking, sharing ideas and innovations across continents.

“Many of these discussions focus on the value opportunities in gathering, analysing and sharing data across the organisation,” he said. “Projects that we engage in often generate vast amounts of data to be processed, but the sharing of results and lessons learnt can be of great benefit to colleagues in similar fields in other offices.”

He highlighted the increasing pace of work allowed by ever-improving software and computer power, and that client expectations were continually evolving to expect results faster. The speed in itself, though, was only one benefit; the more important aspect of automated processes, for instance, was providing more time and better data on which analysis could be conducted.

Tracey Drew, a senior environmental scientist and the head of the company’s Data Services Department, also providing strategic innovation support, noted that a company’s success in innovation could be reflected in its ability to solve traditional problems, and to accelerate business activities, processes and competencies. The way that technology is embraced should also allow change in the ways people work, and in the opportunities, they have for providing new solutions.

“Among the forums we use to share ideas and promote innovation in our daily working lives are our lunch time presentation events,” said Drew. “This is an informal lunch-time event where a presenter shares their useful experience, invention or idea as a learning opportunity for others – inspiring comment and collaboration.”

According to Xanthe Adams, the principal engineer who pioneered the innovation workshops at SRK and digital transformation specialist: water sector, many of our innovations that the company’s engineers and scientists develop make working processes more productive, while the best ones help implement or even improve good industry practice.

Data science is an increasingly important foundation for much of SRK’s work (Image: SRK Consulting).

“Data science is an increasingly important foundation for much of our work, allowing us to develop effective and novel solutions on which clients can rely,” said Adams. “Using modern sensors to help generate more accurate and reliable data, for instance, allows us to move onto the next step of developing smart solutions with better results.”

Water monitoring is one field which can contribute significantly to South Africa’s water challenges, and technology is opening doors for new ways to manage and protect this valuable resource. She said the process of remote water monitoring is well developed, and data from sensors can now be streamed wirelessly for real time analysis.

Real innovation comes by harnessing the Internet-of-Things in a complete system that addresses a client’s risk (Image: SRK Consulting).

“Real innovation comes by harnessing the Internet-of-Things in a complete system that addresses a client’s water risk,” she said. “If a data source and pre-designed algorithms can be applied to a real-time chemical analysis of a water stream, for instance, it could be possible to alert the owner to the actual source of unacceptable levels of certain chemicals.”

Larger volumes of accurate data – or ‘big data’ – are also becoming vital where historical data may no longer be a reliable guide for the future. With climate change, for example, it is no longer enough to rely on the past century of rainfall data to determine bloodlines when designing civil or other structures close to natural water courses, said Reddy.

“When determining the appropriate design parameters for decades into the future, we are needing to rely far more on the climate and rainfall patterns from the last five years to identify new trends,” he said. “This means we need the necessary tools to extract every clue we can from the more recent data, which often requires new methods and technologies.”

SRK’s reputation for quality studies, integrity and independent advice have laid a foundation to collaborate closely with clients on pushing technological boundaries, said Drew.

“Innovation is most effective when it can underpin or accompany a practical solution for a client or industry,” she said. “As SRK continues to build its own in-house innovation channels and forums, we foresee even more constructive contributions both to clients’ actual projects and to broader industry practice.”

With innovation as a cornerstone value, SRK Consulting encourages its engineers and scientists to share and evolve their technology tools – many of which leverage the power of big data.

Pushing these boundaries achieves:

  • More productive work processes
  • Improved industry practice
  • Accurate and reliable data
  • Smart solutions
  • Insights into climate change
  • Effective responses to changing conditions
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Pandemic, climate change raise stakes for South Africa

In the face of Covid-19, climate change and growing economic hardship in South Africa, disaster risk reduction (DRR) should be a priority for government at all levels; the signs are, though, that there is still insufficient capacity and commitment to carry through on this mandate.

According to Martin Stols, principal consultant in GIS and disaster management at SRK Consulting, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a stark reminder of the importance of being prepared for unexpected events. It also demonstrated that certain risks are often underestimated, and that there is no room for complacency.

“The top priority hazards that we identified in disaster management plans in 2019 were fire, floods and drought, while human disease was ranked 14th,” said Stols. “The Covid-19 pandemic certainly would have changed this perception – but importantly it taught us how different sectors are impacted during a disaster and how interdependent many sectors are during a disaster.”

In this sense, DRR is everybody’s business, so it is vital to avoid taking a ‘silo’ approach when planning for and responding to disaster risk.

Integrated approach

“No single entity can ‘own’ or take sole responsibility for a hazard or disaster,” he emphasised. “There is sometimes a misconception that certain departments are responsible for a certain category of hazard – but there are always knock-on effects that extend well beyond the core impacts.”

For example, he noted that the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) may have a programme like Working on Fire, but the effects of a fire may require intervention by other departments such as Human Settlements and or Agriculture. Similarly, floods are not only the problem of the Department of Water and Sanitation.

On different levels of government there could be different agencies involved in the disaster continuum. For example, flood mitigation in a city environment will most likely be the responsibility of the roads and stormwater department, but the response efforts should there be a flooding event will lie with the emergency services.

“Disasters frequently demand more from government agencies than their direct mandate suggests,” he said. “The DFFE has a clear mandate to protect the environment, for instance, but when the Covid-19 hard lockdown led to the closure of the county’s national parks, many households around these parks needed emergency assistance. They were stripped of their primary source of income through tourism-related activities, and this led to the DFFE having to support these communities by providing food parcels and monetary support.”

He highlighted that disaster risk involves various factors, and can often be most effectively addressed by reducing vulnerability and improving capacity or resilience – a role which includes the responsibilities of a number of departments and sectors other than the department dealing directly with the hazard.

“This also means that better communication is needed among the different stakeholders, through participation in disaster management forums already established,” he said.

Institutional basis

Progress can only be made when DRR is mainstreamed into the operations of government, he urged. This requires – first and foremost – that DRR is well grounded, or institutionalised, within each department or agency. In practical terms, this means having the required policies and interventions in place, as well as organisational structures and cultures in support of DRR within each development intervention.

Stols noted that disaster management planning was already required by law, but that there were high levels of non-compliance. South Africa’s Disaster Management Act of 2015 demands that each national organ of state must conduct a disaster risk assessment for its functional area, map these threats, and prepare a disaster management plan (DMP). Many national departments, however, have not submitted DMPs to the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC), as the law requires.

This presents a significant challenge to the national DRR effort, as the NDMC is mandated to make these plans available to provincial and municipal disaster management centres. The law also mandates the departments to coordinate and align their DMPs with other stakeholders, and to invest in DRR. Without full compliance at the national level, the roll-out of disaster management to other levels of government inevitably becomes compromised.

An important element of what the Disaster Management Act requires from departments is that DRR must also consider climate change adaptation, including ecosystem and community-based adaptation approaches. In the country’s currently depressed economic situation, this has a special relevance.

Community vulnerability

“Our high rates of unemployment – further exacerbated by Covid-19 restrictions – mean that communities are increasingly vulnerable,” he said. “This makes disasters far more devastating, both in their immediate impact and their long-term effects on livelihoods and quality of life.”

Mainstreaming DRR into the development planning process is very important for sustainability, and essentially means looking critically at each programme, activity and project being planned – not only to reduce the existing disaster risks but also to minimise the creation of new risks. This makes it vital to apply the law’s requirement for government departments to develop early warning mechanisms and procedures for risks identified in their functional areas – and to regularly review and update these plans.

“This would allow a positive shift of focus towards removing root causes of communities’ vulnerability to hazards,” said Stols. “Increased resilience – which would include better housing, infrastructure, basic services and access to resources – would reduce the dependency on government intervention and other external assistance.”

Such a mainstreaming process would be in line with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s Sendai Framework for 2015-2030, the Africa Strategy of Disaster Risk Reduction Programme of Action, and the SADC Regional Resilience Framework 2020-2030.

The Sendai Framework, emphasises four basic priorities for action: understanding risk; strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk; investing in DRR; and enhanced resilience for disaster preparedness and effective response, to ‘build back better’ during recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. Implementing these four priorities will ensure institutionalisation of DRR in any organization.

“Covid-19 has been a wake-up call, demonstrating the wide-ranging and devastating effects of a disaster that we were not well prepared for,” he said. “By complying more fully with our own law and implementing the existing global and regional guidelines, we could take important steps in the right direction.”

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Water stress can put business models in jeopardy

South Africa’s recent droughts are teaching businesses a life-changing lesson: we can no longer simply assume that clean water will always be available to keep operations running smoothly.

According to Gert Nel, partner and principal hydrogeologist at SRK Consulting, responsible water management is becoming a cornerstone of any sustainable business model – with investors starting to look more critically at how water risks are mitigated. “When putting together a business model for a multi-million rand business development, a key factor will now be the reliability of water supply,” said Nel. “Can you trust the local and regional water services provider to always offer a sustainable water source, and what are the broader environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues you will face with securing your own supply?”

He highlighted that the signing of a contract with a public service provider does not necessarily guarantee water supply if all available the traditional sources simply run out. “Indeed, the experiences of severe drought in cities like Cape Town and Port Elizabeth show that the communities’ basic right to water will take precedence, and businesses will be left to develop their own solutions in a crisis,” he said.

In this context, groundwater remains the most readily accessible resource to businesses – as long as it is used and managed in strict accordance with ESG best practice. This means early-stage scientific investigations into the viability of boreholes, as well as careful adherence to the regulatory framework.

“While desalination has been considered in coastal locations, it is a relatively costly option and takes years to implement,” he said. “Drilling boreholes is generally the only practical option, but businesses might be located on a very poor aquifer which could be low-yielding or have an unacceptable water quality.”

To ensure the integrity of the business model, developers generally require the involvement of a professional groundwater specialist to investigate and highlight the groundwater development potential of the town, city or area in which the operation will be established. These studies will also include a consideration of the number of existing groundwater users in the immediate area, and their respective water uses.

“The question that needs to be answered is whether there is enough groundwater for your business, in addition to the other private and public users in the area.”

Gert Nel, partner and principal hydrogeologist at SRK Consulting

“A hydrogeologist can compile a numerical groundwater model that delivers scientific predictions on the future availability of groundwater in the area you’re investing in – taking into account both existing use and the likely increased demand in the future. This is standard practice in the mining sector, for example, and all sectors can learn from this.”

Legal compliance is of course a key aspect of ESG, and this requires early planning to accommodate the potentially lengthy permitting period. Boreholes require a water use license (WUL), which can take up to two years to approve. Having the necessary license in place gives a business the ability to start drilling and preparing the necessary infrastructure for self-supply of water in case of a drought.

“This creates the vital back-up water supply to mitigate the operation’s risk in situations when the usual water supplier is unable to deliver,” he said. “It does need the investment in studies and permitting well in advance, though, as it will be too late to respond once ‘Day Zero’ is in sight.”

He reiterated the importance of considering ESG impacts related to the drilling of boreholes, and the crucial need to follow due process.

“If you drill boreholes to provide a supplementary or sole supply to your business, and you don’t follow scientific, environmental and social due processes, you could face public resistance,” he warned. “Surrounding borehole users could well accuse you of depleting their groundwater, or even causing the failure of their businesses due to their only water supply source drying up.”

While it might be possible to address these claims through detailed hydrogeological investigations, it cannot always be assumed that the scientific answer will be accepted by all stakeholders. Careful processes of communication and consultation – and perhaps even collaboration over the use of available groundwater – will help to manage the risk of reputational damage or worse.

“Irrespective of the specific environmental and social context of the business, it is wise to engage experienced scientists and engineers in preparing a water solution for a sustainable business plan,” he said. “The regulatory, social and physical landscape is complex, and there are a number of pitfalls that a responsible business would do well to avoid.”

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Top SRK experts gather to integrate climate change services

As climate change climbs the rankings of business risk, SRK Consulting recently gathered over 50 of its specialists in a virtual workshop to integrate and strengthen its climate change services.

Organised by SRK’s South African Climate Change Reference Group led by Ashleigh Maritz, Philippa Burmeister and Lisl Pullinger, the two-day event included nine parallel sessions discussing over 20 topics.

“Climate change mitigation and adaptation are placing growing demands on businesses in every sector, and on governments.”

SRK Principal Sustainability Consultant Lisl Pullinger

“It is raising social, environmental and governance risks, and threatening economic activity with a range of possible disruptions across the globe.”

Senior Environmental Scientist Ashleigh Maritz highlighted that SRK’s engineers and scientists have for many years been developing tools to monitor and benchmark these risks, and to address them in client’s operations. Key to these efforts has been SRK’s strategic commitment to collaboration.

“Integration between the various disciplines and skill sets of our professionals is really vital in addressing climate change,” she said, “as destabilised weather patterns have countless impacts on every aspect of social and economic life.”

The company’s focus in continuously developing its range of services is to ‘mainstream’ the consideration of climate change in project planning and execution. Critical fields such as water management, environmental impact, infrastructure capacity, social vulnerability and mine tailings design are demanding more attention than ever.

“Our recent workshop explored many of these vital areas, including greenhouse gas accounting, water stewardship, community adaptation, green mine design, tailings management, climate change impact assessment and disaster prevention and management,” said Principal Scientist in Air Quality and Climate Change Philippa Burmeister.

The company’s extensive service offering helps clients to build resilient infrastructure, by posing a range of climatic conditions or design criteria to assess vulnerability and improve resilience. Clients are also assisted with emergency response plans, and with contingency solutions to minimise the consequences of an event.

“A field of particular interest within SRK is the use of data management tools, which capture data efficiently and automate processes such as greenhouse gas (GHG) calculation,” said Burmeister. “The company also uses advanced computing and data science to predict potential climate-change risks and inform design. We combine this approach with a wide suite of professional services, helping clients generate and apply an effective mitigation and adaptation strategy.”

The success of the South African event has led to SRK planning a global workshop in 2021 that will virtually engage specialists from SRK’s offices on all six continents.

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Gas-to-power options emerge on South African energy scene

As South Africa races against the clock to fill an electricity supply gap of some 2 000MW between 2019 and 2022, gas-to-power projects will play a significant role.

Government’s recently launched risk mitigation independent power producer procurement programme (RMIPPPP) has stirred the interest of a number of private players in the gas-to-power sector, according to Nicola Rump, principal environmental scientist at SRK Consulting.

“While the longer-established renewable energy independent power producer procurement programme (REIPPPP) is delivering considerable results in solar and wind energy generation, we are now seeing an exciting start in exploring the potential of gas in South Africa’s energy mix,” says Rump.

She notes that the field of gas-fired generation in the country has previously seen little activity from private developers. This was now changing fast, as the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy prepares to begin evaluating RMIPPPP project bids by the end of 2020. With South Africa’s power system being so constrained, government is wanting these projects to start feeding the national grid by mid-2022. SRK is currently conducting a number of environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for gas-to-power projects in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Key aspects of the planning process for these projects, she says, include EIAs and related licencing requirements. Within the tight timeframes envisaged, these need to be carefully managed to avoid becoming stumbling blocks.

“The introduction of strict timelines for the EIA process in recent years means that while EIAs are generally completed in less time than before, the process leaves very little time for accommodating any changes to the project design.”

Nicola Rump, principal environmental scientist at SRK Consulting

It also requires that a significant amount of work must be completed before the application is actually lodged with the regulator. “Gas-to-power projects need to submit a final scoping study to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), and this must be approved before the EIA phase can begin,” Rump says. “Once the final environmental impact report (EIR) has been submitted, DEFF would decide on the conditions applying to the authorisation.”

While an important attraction of gas is its lower carbon footprint than coal, South Africa’s dominant fuel source for energy, it is not without its environmental impacts. These include carbon emissions, for which projects would require an air emission license before proceeding.  

“Climate change impacts are also becoming an increasingly important consideration in these assessments,” said Rump, “especially in the light of South Africa’s commitments to global climate change and greenhouse gas emission agreements – and its emission reduction targets.”

Other impacts include noise and traffic, as well as effects on the marine ecology of those projects requiring marine infrastructure. Currently, gas-to-power projects tend to be close to ports to facilitate the supply chain from sea-borne liquified natural gas (LNG).

She noted that current projects will have to overcome South Africa’s lack of gas pipeline infrastructure, basing their viability on LNG sources being shipped in. Among the advantages of developing a fledgling gas-to-power sector through the RMIPPPP is that this would contribute to the growth of local gas markets – helping pave the way for the installation of costly gas infrastructure. This is turn would hopefully reduce the cost of gas as a fuel and spur the uptake of this cleaner fuel in South Africa’s energy landscape.

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MINING|The science of addressing climate change

Climate change is exacerbating many of the risks that mines already face in their daily operations and needs to be factored into planning decisions right from the pre-feasibility stage of projects.

Water management, for example, is becoming more complex as rainfall patterns in many areas start to change in frequency and intensity, according to Philippa Burmeister, principal scientist at SRK Consulting. “This affects mines’ management of their surface water and groundwater resources, as well as biodiversity and wetland management,” she explains.

“Climate change has implications for infrastructure design, as it raises the risk of flooding, water insecurity, and environmental damage.”

PHILIPPA BURMEISTER, PRINCIPAL SCIENTIST, SRK CONSULTING

Water balance

As an example, she highlighted the importance of water balance as a key aspect of tailings dam design. Here, historical rainfall data is a crucial part of the information necessary to ensure dams’ safe operation in the long term. “As rainfall variability and intensity change, the historical data becomes less reliable in guiding design parameters,” she says. “Operations generally are more likely to be disrupted due to severe weather events like floods or droughts. For instance, heavier storm events may increase water volumes seeping into mine workings, requiring more pumping capacity.”

Ashleigh Maritz, senior environmental scientist at SRK Consulting, notes that climate change is also likely to affect the livelihood resilience of mining communities. “As temperatures and rainfall patterns change, traditional forms of livelihood could be threatened, making communities more reliant on the mines for income and corporate social investment.”

Social licence

“The way that a mine engages with their stakeholders and supports communities is therefore critical, as it is vital to maintaining its social licence to operate,” adds Maritz.

She pointed out that an important outcome of climate change is likely to be a scarcity of precious resources like water – which could set mines in direct competition with local communities. Rising average temperatures in some regions may also lead to the geographic spread of communicable diseases like malaria – which may affect employees and surrounding communities.

Impacts on public infrastructure will also have a knock-on effect on mines. More frequent flooding or drought will change municipalities’ planning and investment in water supply or stormwater facilities. This may disadvantage the mines or affect mines’ social license to operate.

 “This will demand not just a technical solution but careful relationship building so that platforms are created for collaborative and long-term answers with buy-in from all stakeholders,” Maritz attests.

Risk and compliance

Burmeister adds that mining clients are increasingly cognisant of climate change risk. Industry standards are evolving – even in advance of national standards or requirements.

“With financial institutions also seeing the potential risks to their investments posed by climate change, they are increasingly stipulating that climate change issues are addressed in planning studies for mining projects.”

Philippa Burmeister, principal scientist at SRK Consulting

To effectively address the varied risks that accompany climate change, she emphasised that solutions need to be integrated. In other words, technical input must be coordinated across a range of professional disciplines. It is crucial that climate change impacts be ‘mainstreamed’ into various technical disciplines if it is to be effectively addressed.

“Our philosophy at SRK is that climate change must be considered by all disciplines in the project team,” she said. “This includes expertise in various facets of engineering, as well as in the natural and social sciences.”

SRK uses a range of quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate clients’ exposure to climate change risk. These include measuring the project’s greenhouse gas emissions as part of its environmental impact assessment and applying climate change models to identify specific project risks posed by predicted changes in climatic conditions.

Innovating for sustainability

SRK is looking at developing site-specific climate change-related rainfall models for its mining clients, to better inform their project and operational planning.

“By integrating SRK’s professional input, we ensure not only that clients are compliant with regulations, but that the many and varied risks of climate change are addressed in their projects,” she says. “This makes them more sustainable and robust in the longer term.”

Maritz noted that the science of climate change modelling is relatively young, leading the company to take an adaptive and dynamic approach – while leveraging off partnerships to develop and apply the power of predictive modelling.

“This assists us in pioneering strategies and tools to manage climate change risks, from initial mine design and operational technical inputs through to social transitioning and mine closure,” she shares.  “While monitoring is being undertaken extensively at most mine sites, the interpretation of the data is critical to identifying trends that could prevent undesirable events.”

Digital and data

A key concern for SRK has been the development of better data processing and analysis capacity for the considerable mine data that is already available. This helps guide decision-making around climate change and the risks it poses.

“SRK recently established a dedicated data services unit that works closely with the climate change team to leverage and evolve the latest digital technologies,” she says. “For instance, as part of an innovation project, the team is developing an interactive mining map of South Africa; this provides a coordinated source of geo-located data on various aspects and stages of mining.”

SRK is also looking at developing site-specific climate change-related rainfall models for its mining clients, to better inform their project and operational planning. To support its ongoing innovation efforts, the company holds an annual innovation conference that fosters collaboration between specialists and opens doors to valuable applications.

www.srk.co.za

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Covid-19 calls for ‘balanced’ strategy for technical audits

Engineering projects face a growing range of audits, assessment, and monitoring, but will Covid-19 restrictions on movement make it difficult for consultants to carry out this vital work?

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