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OPINION: How infrastructure can contribute to sustainable and climate resilient development

Do the decisions we make around infrastructure promoting sustainable and climate resilient development as hoped, or are we promoting climate resilient poverty? Strategic climate and water consultant Gavin Quibell explores the issue.

Are we promoting sustainable and climate resilient poverty?

The Climate Resilience Strategy for the Lower Limpopo Basin in Mozambique (developed with the support of CDKN and the Global Water Partnership) focuses on addressing current climate variability to build resilience for the future. Tackling these immediate challenges and addressing current inequalities is critical to social and political stability.

In the lower Shire valley in Malawi, many east bank tributaries are perennial and support small gravity fed irrigation schemes. The groundwater has low salinity, and other schemes are fed from wells via treadle pumps. This infrastructure builds climate resilience, and has benefitted the villagers. The average household size is 4-5 people and are made of burnt brick. However, climate change could change this picture. Dry season flows in the rivers may drop to the point where irrigation is not feasible, and groundwater tables may drop. Addressing this will require larger storage infrastructure in the catchments of these rivers.

On the west bank, the rivers are ephemeral and the groundwater saline. The only substantial areas currently under irrigation are the large commercial schemes pumping water from the Shire River itself. Small farmers are entirely reliant on recession agriculture, which requires smaller floods to maintain soil moisture. This comes with the risk of losing crops in larger floods. On the west bank there are 6-7 people per household, and many people live in flood vulnerable mud brick homes. Poverty levels are noticeably high. However, the planned Shire Valley Irrigation Project, and the raising of the Kamuzu Barrage may change all that. These large infrastructure projects worth several hundred million US dollars, will provide greater climate resilience.

So, small scale infrastructure, while critical as a social good to address current climate challenges, should not be seen as the only response to climate change. Climate resilient economies will need to be supported by larger infrastructure projects.

Climate resilience and economic growth

There is a strong relationship between GDP per capita and the Adaptation Index. Countries with a higher GDP tend to have a greater capacity to adapt to a changing climate, with some exceptions. Oil-rich desert countries, and small island States lie below the line; countries with highly diversified economies lie above the line. A team at the University of Notre Dame has produced a Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN), made up of a vulnerability score, which measures a country’s exposure, sensitivity and capacity to adapt to the negative effects of climate change; and a readiness score which assesses a country’s ability to leverage investments in building climate resilience.

It has been said that;

“True development is the introduction of choices where none existed before.” 

In the climate context;

“Building climate resilience means introducing choices where none existed before.”

During 2015 and 2016 we experienced the strongest El Nino event on record with some unexpected consequences. Fish off the Californian coast moved north to cooler waters, and seal pups began to starve, moving onto land in search of food. A future climate may pose similar as yet unknown challenges, challenges that our current adaptation strategies cannot cope with. The more choices we have, the better we will be able to address these impacts. We need climate resilient development trajectories that provide these choices, which recognise both the immediate and long term challenges, and which see climate resilience as both a social and economic good. GDP growth can introduce livelihood choices and economic sectors that may be less exposed to climate change. But these choices perhaps need to lie outside the agricultural sector.

The climate is not the only thing that is changing – telling stories of the future

The current consensus seems to be that we are locked into at least a 1.5oC increase in global temperatures, and that will have significant and unavoidable impacts. But it is not all doom and gloom. A study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests that future investments in renewable energy will dwarf investments in fossil fuels. New battery technologies and cheaper solar panels may change the way we use and transmit energy, reducing the water demands of electricity production. Changing energy prices may make desalination cheaper. New hydroponic and farming technologies may provide us with more crop per drop.

As we look towards growing economies through large long-lived climate resilient infrastructure, we should not only factor in a future climate, but also what changes new technologies may bring.

Looking at our feet and the horizon

So having tossed the coin of climate resilience as both a social and economic good in the air, I’m doomed to question how do we balance these perspectives. Clearly, we need to look at the immediate challenges of realising the Sustainable Development Goals, while ensuring that after 2030 climate change does not set us back to our starting point.

While working on South Africa’s Water Allocation Reform programme, we hit the conundrum; the compulsory licensing process not only provided the opportunity to achieve greater equity in water allocations, but also to get a much better handle on water use. I strongly advocated taking some risks to speed up the process, reasoning that the social and political stability that equity brought with it would ultimately provide a better basis for good water governance. I would similarly argue that the short term need for infrastructure to address current climate variability is worth taking some long term risks.

I think we need to develop a broader vision of the future. We need those who will passionately drive each of the SDGs forward, as well as those who will look at all of them together. I think to have sustainable implementation of any one of the SDGs, we will need to implement them all. This will require developing a vision for the future based not only on a very different climate, but also on a different technological and social environment. This will require blue sky thinking.


Image: credit CIFOR.

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