Thursday, July 27, 2017

Infrastructure development amid climate change

The 2016 New Climate Economy Report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate underlined once again what has almost become a clich├ęd statement from world leaders and all those advocating for sustainable climate change fight: that climate-smart, resilient infrastructure will be crucial for the world to adapt to the climate impacts.

With America having pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, it is left to a few more ‘top’ leaders to support larger initiatives to deal with climate change.

In the agreement, which entered into force on November 4 2016 shortly after it had been adopted, all countries agreed to work to limit global temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius.

Poor countries like Malawi—which seldom have a notable voice in large agreements on dealing with climate change—are bearing the brunt of climate change just like the rest of the world.

Droughts and floods, necessitated by adverse and unpredictable climate patterns, are no longer the big news—except that they prompt some cry for help from leaders in the event that crops are destroyed, lives lost and roads and bridges swept away.

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate in its report titled ‘The sustainable infrastructure imperative: Financing for better growth and development’ recommended that ensuring that infrastructure is built to deliver sustainability is the only way to meet global goals on economic growth and to guarantee long-term, inclusive and resilient growth.

The report stated that investing in sustainable infrastructure is key to tackling three simultaneous challenges: reigniting global growth, delivering on sustainable development goals (SDGs) and reducing climate risk.

“Infrastructure underpins core economic activity and is an essential foundation for achieving inclusive sustainable growth. It is indispensable for development and poverty elimination, as it enhances access to basic services, education and work opportunities, and can boost human capital and quality of life.

“… Sustainability means ensuring that the infrastructure we build is compatible with social and environmental goals… It also includes infrastructure that supports the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, and contributes to enhanced livelihoods and social wellbeing,” the report said.

Malawi has had a fair share of the effects of climate change on infrastructure development despite that the problems seem to have been exacerbated by poor workmanship which might have been hidden all along.

Roads with poor drainage systems, bridges not properly edged and buildings not properly climate-proofed have been severely hit by the effects of climate change; starkly reminding the country that there is a gap to be filled in engineering processes.

Several buildings including police houses in Lilongwe, school blocks in different parts of the country; roads in the country’s cities and bridges on main roads, have been damaged before by strong winds, floods and heavy rains.

In fact the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate states that bad infrastructure “literally kills people” by causing respiratory illnesses and exacerbating road accidents, among other hazards.

“It also puts pressure on land and natural resources, creating unsustainable burdens for future generations such as unproductive soils and runaway climate change,” says the commission, which was set up to help governments, businesses and society make better-informed decisions on how to achieve economic prosperity and development while also addressing climate change.

It was commissioned by seven countries namely Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Norway, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom, as an independent initiative to report to the international community.

With SDG Goal 13 urging nations to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts and Malawi having already experienced the drastic effects of climate change, there obviously is no time to waste as long as infrastructure development that responds to climate change is concerned.

According to the United Nations (UN), people are experiencing the significant impacts of climate change, which include changing weather patterns, rising sea level, and more extreme weather events.

“The greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are driving climate change and continue to rise. They are now at their highest levels in history.

“Without action, the world’s average surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century and is likely to surpass [three] degrees Celsius this century—with some areas of the world expected to warm even more. The poorest and most vulnerable people are being affected the most,” the UN says in a note introducing SDG 13.

So while, the fight against climate change seems to be gaining momentum each passing day, it is not obvious that the current impacts will be eliminated soon.

That is why one of Malawi’s most prominent engineers, Paul Kulemeka, observes that every engineering activity has to respond to climate change, whatever the case.

Regarding infrastructure development, Kulemeka says there is a growing need to ensure buildings and roads—among others—are climate-proofed so that they last longer “because times have changed”.

“In terms of climate change, what has happened is that when we are designing bridges and drainage systems, for instance, we design them looking at what we call the retain period. We make assumptions that for this kind of infrastructure to withstand different conditions for, say, ten years, we need to make it this big.

“Because of the effects of climate change, the initial assumptions have to change, obviously. As engineers, we have gone back to look at how we can design something that should last longer, like making structures like roads and bridges wider,” Kulemeka says.

He adds that engineers need to be always abreast of the times and share best practices because of ever-changing times.

“As engineers, we cannot avoid climate change. It is here and we have to respond to it and every kind of infrastructure that we design has to respond to the effects of climate change. If it is a building, there have to be ways of proofing it against strong winds or heavy rains, for example,” Kulemeka adds.

Even the vision of the National Construction Industry Policy is “a dynamic construction industry that fosters economic growth and international competiveness”, implying that there is need to adapt to emerging trends in the industry so that one remains relevant.

So far, the National Construction Industry Council (NCIC) of Malawi has deregistered some construction contractors who have failed to meet the standard requirements of their professions which include producing infrastructure that has failed to last beyond the defects liability period.

But while the effects of climate change have not spared anyone in Malawi, when it comes to construction, it appears it is the towns and cities that have the information handy on climate-proof structures.

Those in remote areas might continue erecting their structures which will not withstand the next flood or storm. That is why stakeholders agree that there is need for more sensitization on the effects of climate on infrastructure development even in remote areas; even for small mud houses.

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