Rising temperatures and more frequent and extreme climate events, such as flooding and drought, are compromising existing infrastructure. At the same time, increasing uncertainty around the timing and intensity of these risks now and in the future creates new and daunting challenges for new infrastructure development. The global infrastructure investment needed to keep up with projected economic and demographic growth is $94 trillion by 2040, yet we are only on track to meet 18% of that need.
The September Adaptation Community Meeting brought together experts from the USAID Office of Energy and Infrastructure, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the USAID Adaptation Thought Leadership and Assessments (ATLAS) project, and the USAID Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Finance (WASH-FIN) project. Panelists explored challenges and solutions to promote smarter decisions about how we design, finance, and build infrastructure, and what practical steps we can take to change our behavior in the near term and beyond.
As an example of climate resilient infrastructure, MCC Director of Environmental and Social Performance Doug Mason described the success of the MCC-funded road project in Philippines that withstood the devastating Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. Mason stressed this as an example for the need to rethink how we manage uncertainty associated with extreme climate events. While the MCC-supported road provided a critical corridor during the emergency response and recovery period, connecting roads did not fare as well, constraining response efforts in many areas. Mason explained that it is not good enough to have one good road; we need resilient systems. “Even when we get it right once, that’s still not good enough,” he emphasized. Meeting infrastructure requirements in the coming decades is challenging enough, but building at scale – and in a way that will be resilient and sustained – is an even greater challenge.
To enhance the climate resilience of infrastructure, it is crucial to understand the specific vulnerabilities imposed by a changing climate. Chris Perine, ATLAS Chief of Party, explained how a climate vulnerability assessment of Jamaica’s transport sector is helping inform government transport policy. Key climate risks facing Jamaica’s transport sector include heat exposure, flooding, and sea level rise. Mapping climate vulnerabilities helped generate recommendations to improve climate resilience. According to Perine, a quantitative vulnerability assessment “has a lot more credibility; it is much more likely to change minds, to change behavior and to get people set on the right road to addressing the challenge.” He notes, however, that while having data and evidence is critical to elicit an appropriate response, completing the assessment is just the start of addressing the problem.
According to John Pasch, Chief Engineer at USAID Office of Energy and Infrastructure, the depth of the problem is tremendous. Pasch highlighted that front-loading risk management in planning and design helps improve project impact. Citing a USAID basic education project in Pakistan, Pasch explained how “using green building [principles] is actually a really great way to introduce climate resilient infrastructure.” By demonstrating relatively simple and inexpensive design enhancements, the Pakistani Ministry of Education realized such approaches could be adopted across the country, improving the learning environment at reasonable cost.
Appropriate financing and investment is critical to meet future challenges and infrastructure needs. According to the World Bank, ensuring universal access to water and sanitation and bridging the financial gap will require more than tripling public and private investment. Using examples from Africa to Southeast Asia, Sam Huston, WASH-FIN Chief of Party, explained that many utilities are not keeping pace with the needs of rapidly growing cities, even without factoring in the added challenges posed by climate. Integrating climate vulnerability into infrastructure planning and design is essential to address the growing climate risks (and additional financial risks climate stress can impose). Huston maintains that good management and efficient operations are key to climate resilient service provision and that new infrastructure investments must be climate-smart.
Danielle Miley, Climate Adaptation Specialist at USAID, facilitated a discussion among panelists and participants on the challenges to and opportunities for taking practical steps to make smarter decisions about how we design, finance and build better, more climate resilient infrastructure in the near term and beyond. The discussion focused on the need for robust decision making under climate uncertainty, better access to reliable climate data and information, appropriate engineering practices and innovative ways to fill financing gaps. To scale impact and transform behavior, often the most simple, cost-effective, and locally appropriate techniques will be the easiest to replicate and incorporate into policy.