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How to design climate-resilient infrastructure: lessons from a disaster

Investing in climate-resilient infrastructure can bring numerous benefits, such as improving the reliability of service provision, increasing asset lifespan, etc

Investing in climate-resilient infrastructure can bring numerous benefits, such as improving the reliability of service provision, increasing asset lifespan, etc Image: REUTERS/Rogan Ward.

Palesa-Vuyolwethu Tshandu
Masters Candidate New York University, Robert Wagner School of Public Service
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  • In 2022, major flooding in the South African province of KwaZulu Natal led to a devastating climate disaster.
  • It caused significant damage to the region's infrastructure, economy and communities.
  • Lessons learned from climate disasters like this highlight the need for more investment in climate-resilient infrastructure.

In April 2022, the province of KwaZulu Natal experienced the worst climate disaster since 1987 in the province, according to a study by researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and the University of Brighton, United Kingdom. The devastating flooding prompted the evacuation of logistics businesses along the coast and a shutdown of economic activity. The floods were devastating for those who witnessed the aftermath of its destruction. Yet, perhaps more eerily, they served as a warning sign to policy-makers about the reality of climate change and its impact on the lives of South Africans, the economy, and its institutions.

KwaZulu Natal is a province that has been characterized as the economic epicentre of South Africa, responsible for more than 60% of exports and imports passing through the Port of Durban. Its overall contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) is estimated at over 16%, making it the second-largest economic market for South Africa.

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At the time of the crisis, I was working as a Senior Specialist in the office of the Group Chief Executive at a state-owned enterprise with the team responsible for drafting the report, assessing and outlining the extent of the impact on the infrastructure, to help quantify the damage and associated costs for repair across ports and railway infrastructure. However, as I interrogated the report, it quickly became apparent that this intellectually reflective exercise required us to confront some deep truths about the state of our infrastructure.

My first reality check was the unpreparedness of the infrastructure to adequately prevent a climate disaster, as a result of historic underinvestment, and policies that date as far back as the 1970s outlining investment in national infrastructure. For the first time, climate change was confronting South Africa’s bygone era, and much to our dismay – the country’s infrastructure was duly unprepared.

Investing in climate-resilient infrastructure

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the defining characteristic of climate-resilient infrastructure is infrastructure that “is planned, designed, built and operated in a way that anticipates, prepares for, and adapts to changing climate conditions.” The OECD goes on to further suggest that climate-resilient infrastructure can also withstand, and respond to recover rapidly from the disruptions caused by the climate conditions.”

Yet, for many countries in developing regions, this newfound sense of urgency to respond to these climate disasters offers an opportunity for additional investment in infrastructure investments to aid a trifecta of challenges that intersect. One of the foremost challenges in designing new systems to respond to the current challenges are the policy misalignments, regulatory decisions, and policy frameworks which inadvertently discourage the use of innovative ecosystem-based solutions.

Infrastructure maintenance is more feasible for developed countries as they have a clear distinction between the roles of private and public sectors. However, policy-makers must be well-prepared and effective in creating an environment that is conducive to infrastructure investment. This helps in mitigating the risks associated with building climate-resilient infrastructure that protects citizens. Building strong systems, organizations, and institutions that can absorb disruption, operate under a wide variety of circumstances, and move swiftly and fluidly is a critical pressure point for most governments. To achieve this, policy-makers must comprehend the interconnected volatility of the modern world and act as cross-functional operators.

Admittedly, these changing dynamics will require policy-makers to engage thoughtfully in the highly complex nature of the interconnectedness between the social, built environment and natural systems, to ultimately curate policies that ensure the sufficient mobilization of public and private investments. Now, more than ever, cities and communities are becoming acutely aware of their need to adapt to the unavoidable changes in climate conditions. With over half of the global population residing in cities, and with the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events projected to increase, the resilience of critical state infrastructure systems has equally become a priority.

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According to a report on the future demographics of coastal cities, between 2020 and 2030, Africa’s seven largest coastal cities – Lagos, Luanda, Dar es Salaam, Alexandria, Abidjan, Cape Town and Casablanca –are projected to grow by 40% (48 million people to 69 million) compared with the continent’s overall anticipated increase of 27% (1.34 billion to 1.69 billion). Smaller coastal cities may expand even faster: Port Harcourt in Nigeria, for example, is expected to grow 53% over this decade. Globally, Africa’s coastal regions are anticipated to experience the highest rates of population growth and urbanization in the world. These demographic pressures are being driven by the economic significance of Africa’s coastal cities.

Investing in climate-resilient infrastructure can thus bring numerous benefits, such as improving the reliability of service provision, increasing asset lifespan, and protecting asset returns, to ensure that the economic interests are protected. In simple terms, such investments can not only enhance climate resilience but also generate further economic returns for developing countries. However, it is equally important to consider the economic realities while buffering against climate change. This can be achieved through a combination of management measures such as changing maintenance schedules and including adaptive management to account for future uncertainties, as well as structural measures.

In some cases, addressing the risks from climate change will require action now, while in others the priority will be to build in flexibility to allow for later responses. One of the suggestions is to ensure that state-owned utilities, professional associations, and regulators have sufficient capacity to use climate projections and facilitate partnerships between sectors to better understand and address infrastructure interdependencies.

Policy-makers must take urgent action

As economist, John Maynard Keynes rightfully argued; during times when the private sector freezes, the government must become the investor of last resort. However, in the modern knowledge economy, investing in infrastructure or generating demand for the expansion of production alone is insufficient. Governments and policy-makers must therefore take early action, which can be more cost-effective than delay if the benefits of such action are high, and if it takes a considerable amount of time to implement the required adaptation measures. To tackle these challenges, a coordinated policy response is necessary, which involves cooperation between the public sector, infrastructure owners and operators, professional associations, and investors.

In conclusion, policy-makers must engage thoughtfully when engaging in the highly complex nature of the interconnectedness between the social, built environment, and natural systems, to ultimately curate policies that ensure the sufficient mobilization of public and private investments. Now, more than ever, building climate-resilient infrastructure has become a necessity for cities, communities, and economies worldwide.

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May 21, 2024

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