In April the tunnelling industry gathered in Dubai, United Arab Emirates for the World Tunnel Congress (WTC) and 44th ITA General Assembly. The Gulf state only became an ITA Member Nation in 2011, but for its size has been an impressive force in recent demand for tunnelling. The SoE UAE itself has grown from five engineers in 1979 to 45,000 today, and the ITA claims that the Middle East’s tunnelling market output is of the same order as Europe, which apart from a few areas, is relatively flat.

Hosting the major tunnelling event of the calendar was probably a foregone conclusion. The theme of the 2018 congress was ‘the role of underground space for future cities’ and, while this did not have any noticeable impact on the papers presented (people following the usual tendency of presenting their ongoing work) there was a strong showing from the ITA Committee for Underground Space (ITACUS), which launched a new Young Talent programme headed by TU Delft’s Roseanne Verloop. Additionally, celebrating its 10th anniversary, the chair and vice-chair of ITACUS also launched a new book ‘Underground Spaces Unveiled’ (see book review, Tunnels and Tunnelling International, May 2018, p.15).

A key idea currently circulating among the planners of underground space is that of interconnectivity. This is the idea of connecting underground spaces to each other rather than forcing people to keep coming to the surface.


ITA president Tarcisio Celestino highlighted the challenges of sustainability. With a global population projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, and a finite world’s resources, the issues facing humanity are clear to nearly everyone.

“In addition to the overall world population increase, it is important to remember that migration to cities is still going on. So, the urban population of the world is expected to increase 80% by 2050. Considering that nowadays there is a significant backlog of infrastructure, we must be prepared to double urban infrastructure over the next three decades. It is a huge challenge: to construct as much in the coming 30 years as everything constructed so far.

“Underground construction will play a very important role. We cannot repeat the mistakes of constructing many elevated urban transportation infrastructure works, many of which have been demolished and replaced with underground solutions in recent years. Good examples are the Big Dig in Boston, USA and Porto Maravilha in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“The record development of cities has shown that underground solutions are the most appropriate to solve urban problems, leading to sustainable results. Long-term performance with respect to property tax collection and attraction of investments leading to job creation and life quality improvement is intrinsically connected to underground solutions.

“Demographic growth indicates huge needs for underground works in developing countries in the coming decades. Nigeria will have the third largest population in the world in 30 years. ITA has been working closely with some of these countries […] The ITA has also been present at the World Urban Forum UN-Habitat demonstrating the effectiveness of underground solutions.

“We [also] have to go on increasing the reliability of underground construction, not only for analysis and planning, but also for construction procedures. Progress has been significant and will go on.”


When asked what the major effect of ITA membership on the SoE UAE had been, Mohammed Mashroom, general secretary of the society, tells Tunnels and Tunnelling that the young engineers complain that “it is an old society”. New engineering fields have been emerging and the local engineers need to make sure that the right expertise is available and they are capable of innovation, so training sessions and workshops have been a boon.

Dubai is able to learn from the mistakes of cities that have been developing their underground space for longer. The city has master plans for stormwater, sewerage, metro networks – all infrastructure. It is even looking at some interconnectivity with an ITACUS workshop planned for the near future.

“Nothing is ever random here in Dubai. We are always planning ahead,” emphasises Suleiman Abdelrahman Alhajri, the scientific chair for the congress.


The ITA would like to see inactive Member Nations supported by the more active societies, and suggests that these mentorships should be encouraged between nations with cultural ties. The group is also working on a Member Nation website template, to help out the less well-resourced nations.

New Zealand has once again become its own Member Nation. Tunnels and Tunnelling will be publishing a more detailed article on the society in a subsequent issue.

An ITA Accidents Taskforce is putting together a database on the lessons that can be taken from collapses and other disasters. The ITA noted the value of acknowledging failings publicly.


As for the next WTC, to be held in Naples, the organising committee is meeting as Tunnels and Tunnelling goes to press. However, a particular highlight is sure to be the Muir Wood lecture, to be delivered by Martin Herrenknecht. When asked what the topic would be, people on the stand just smiled and said “there are a number of ideas being discussed”. Surely not an occasion to miss.