Climate-proofing infrastructure

Thursday, 5 December 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Rainstorms have become the bane of commuters these days. It seems almost every evening there is a sudden downpour that results in flooded streets and long snarls of traffic. The clogged streets then make it almost impossible for commuters to find their way home. Research has suggested that Sri Lanka’s rain patterns are changing and as one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world there is a need to look at solutions with climate-resilient infrastructure.     

Climate change is happening and the consequences are no longer just at an indeterminate point in the future, and as such the Government has focused heavily on disaster management. But climate change also demands more long-term policies, such as building climate-resilient infrastructure, which has gained limited discourse in Sri Lanka. It also means dealing with relatively smaller issues such as congestion but which can have serious economic impact.  

The approach to dealing with climate change is at times so complex that governments prefer to think in silos. Therefore they separate disaster management from other aspects of dealing with climate change, which on the surface appears to make things less complicated, but can result in huge problems further down the road - literally. 

Climate resilience has to be built into projects for several reasons. On one hand, Sri Lanka already has a high level of debt and it simply cannot afford to rebuild or change completed infrastructure, and on the other, given finite raw materials, it cannot keep repairing damaged infrastructure over and over again. 

Providing compensation and relief to affected communities will also be a drain on Government finances, and prolonged discontent emanating from these projects could spiral into costs on the political front.

Climate change will also have serious impacts for cities. In coming decades, building resilience will be essential urban policy and a smart investment for cities. Colombo, along with other capitals of South Asia, provides many examples. 

The liveability of a city is decided on aspects centring on infrastructure above all else. Will roads be flooded? How bad are traffic jams? Will houses be able to withstand natural disasters? Despite congestion, will people have access to power, clean water and air? How are garbage and sewage problems going to be handled? The answers to such questions will decide whether a country is successful in achieving sustainable development or not.  

And while many cities are already beginning to build resilience in response to emerging threats associated with climate change, the strategies they are adopting are often inclusive, making them healthier and more attractive places to live in and do business. Resilience is brandable and demonstrates a city’s willingness to embrace innovation culture. 

But this also demands a different way of thinking about capital and investment. The lifecycle of infrastructure projects should be built into the cost considerations and this should be a positive consideration when banks or states lend for infrastructure projects. 

Sri Lanka is already taking a step in this direction by attempting to move towards more renewable energy. But this effort has to be expanded to include other aspects of its development policy. It is estimated that 60% of the infrastructure the world needs is yet to be built, which means that the earlier policymakers focus on climate resilience, the better off their countries will be.