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How can we build a climate-resilient future?

Natural disasters are nothing new and climate change means their severity is likely to increase in the future. To limit further destruction and suffering and increase long-term resilience of infrastructure and people, a paradigm shift is urgently needed.

Wednesday 20 December 2017, Jonathan Essex

As recently shown by hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the Caribbean, climate change is magnifying the impact of natural disasters.

While this is an undeniable reality, absolute climate catastrophe can be avoided.

To this end, the Agenda for Sustainable Development approved in 2015 by the United Nations aims to achieve resilient infrastructure and inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements by 2030. Moreover, the 2015 UN climate change conference in Paris (COP21) saw world leaders commit to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius versus pre-industrial levels.

But how do we get there?

Infrastructure does not exist in a vacuum

When it comes to infrastructure development, we tend to focus more on the actions needed to limit the impact of natural disasters than on curbing climate change itself.

This is also called ‘resilience’, which the United Nations define as  ‘the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.’

The current approach often considers first the extent to which infrastructure is resistant to natural disasters and how this affects the resilience of the communities that use it.

Traditionally, this means good design and construction and the ability to remain operational during and at least soon after a disaster. It also involves the allocation of sufficient investments in maintenance and improvements to cope with increased natural hazards, as well as skilled institutions.

Let’s take a bridge. To increase its resilience to flooding, several options are available:

  1. Raise its level above the worst predicted flood event.
  2. Upstream measures, such as re-afforestation, to reduce the likelihood of extreme floods.
  3. Improve maintenance and protection procedures to prevent river debris from building up under the bridge and undermining its stability.
  4. Design the bridge so elements that are most exposed fail first and can be easily replaced without damaging the main structure.

For example, if we chose option 4 and the bridge failed, it could be reconstructed quicker so communities that live on different sides of the river are not separated for as long.

The traditional disaster management cycle sets out how relief, recovery and preparedness efforts should be undertaken to ensure households ‘bounce back better’ and infrastructure is ‘built back better’ after a disaster. However, it does not recognise the increasing frequency, severity and unpredictability of disasters due to climate change, and slower, progressive impacts such as temperature and sea level rise. These changes may appear insignificant in the short term but could affect the viability of whole cities in the medium and long run.

Traditional disaster resilience cycle
Traditional disaster management cycle

Investment decisions should take climate change into account as much of the infrastructure built today will be here for decades to come.

Towards different investment and planning strategies

We need to think wider about both environmental sustainability, which includes reducing carbon emissions, and infrastructure resilience in the long term. These two aspects together will determine what infrastructure investment choices will improve livelihoods of communities in the short and long run.

To limit future impact of climate change, infrastructure should first be planned to mitigate climate change. The design should then be tested to ensure that the infrastructure is flexible and adaptive enough to be resilient, both on its own, and in terms of how it will be used.

To this end, we need to change planning strategies and consider how investments impact across sectors, such as water, energy and transport infrastructure systems and wider land-use, community and ecological systems.

Yet urbanisation relies on building more and more infrastructure and, consequently, raises greenhouse gas emissions.

An alternative strategy would be to direct growth away from large cities to reduce vulnerability and strengthen local economies. In Rwanda, within a Global Green Growth Institute-funded project, IMC Worldwide produced guidelines that recommended how secondary cities, rather than the capital Kigali, could be the focal points for future economic development. We demonstrated how this could be planned to ensure increased economic activity leads to different employment opportunities, reduced carbon emissions and inclusiveness.

As part of the project, we also proposed a shift away from road infrastructure to sustainable investment focused on water, energy and resource use, which would improve people’s health and well-being.

Climate change should not be seen as a factor that constrains investment choices. Instead, it provides us with the opportunity to break free from our fossil fuel-dependant societies. To do this, we should bring down the separation between strategic investment decisions and national climate strategies and let the latter guide the former.

While some climate disasters are inevitable, absolute climate catastrophe is not. Between the two scenarios, there is space for hope and collective action, but a paradigm shift is urgently needed.

Cover photo: Russell Watkins/DFID. Damage to buildings caused by Hurricane Irma in Nanny Cay on the British Virgin Island of Tortola. The Caribbean island suffered widespread damage and destruction when Hurricane Irma passed over on 6 September 2017. Made available via Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.

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