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


Do the decisions we make around infrastructure promote 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?

Researchers have found that people are less happy in unequal societies. A particularly poignant finding for a globalised world where the top 8 richest men hold more wealth than 3.6 billion of the world’s poorest (Oxfam at Davos in 2017).

Global inequality is driving the poor in central Africa to take enormous risks to reach Europe in search of wealth. Recurring droughts and floods are trapping many of Africa’s people in poverty. Weather related disasters are pushing up food prices, compelling many more to make the journey northward. It has been suggested that drought was one of the triggers for the Syrian Civil War, which has led to the largest forced migration of people since the Second World War.

The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Risks Report ranked large scale involuntary migration, water crises and the failure of climate mitigation and adaptation, as some of the biggest risks to the world. All these have been carried forward in the 2017 Report. However, many in developed nations fear that migration and globalisation threatens their happiness. This has underpinned a shift towards populist movements, and inward looking nationalist politics. This may well be at the expense of the need to address global challenges.

Even without the dangers of a 1.5o warmer world, current climate variability is pushing us towards an increasingly unequal and unhappy world, with all these attendant risks. Given the events of 2016, the global threats posed by poverty and climate vulnerability are existential, and the need to address them immediate.

The Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework and targets for rich and poor nations alike to address these challenges. But therein lies their challenge, where do we start, and how do we balance the immediate needs for development with longer term climate resilience?

Addressing the problem

Tackling the immediate poverty and climate variability challenges and addressing current inequalities is critical to global social and political stability. However, there is perhaps a danger of complacency in a drive for climate resilience through small scale infrastructure or climate adaptation strategies.

In the lower Shire valley in Malawi, many east bank tributaries are perennial and support small gravity fed irrigation schemes. This infrastructure builds climate resilience, and has benefitted the villagers. However, climate change could change this picture. Dry season flows in the rivers may drop to the point where irrigation is not feasible. Addressing this will require larger, ideally multipurpose, storage infrastructure which may find its economic viability and sustainability through larger commercial irrigation. On the west bank, the planned Shire Valley Irrigation Project, and the raising of the Kamuzu Barrage will provide reliable water for irrigation and hydropower. While the project will provide water to small scale rural famers, its economic viability and sustainability relies on the inclusion of the Illovo Sugar Estate at Nchlao.

Smaller scale projects, while providing resilience to current climate variability, often do not lift people out of poverty. Many may also require other larger scale investments to support economic growth. This economic growth can support increased adaptive capacity. In the context outlined below, smaller projects address climate sensitivity (or exposure behind flood protection works). However, larger projects are needed to build and sustain adaptive capacity – often by providing other less climate sensitive livelihood opportunities in a growing and more diverse economy. Clearly, both are needed, to provide resilience against the current climate variability, and to address a somewhat uncertain future. However, there is a risk that focussing only on smaller schemes for the poor may lead us into a sustainable poverty trap, which may not provide sufficient adaptive capacity for a future climate. Addressing the inequality and migration crisis will almost certainly require larger scale investments aimed at economic growth.

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Climate resilience and economic growth

Further support lies in the relationship between the University of Notre Dame’s Vulnerability Index, and GDP per person. Countries with a higher GDP tend to have lower vulnerability scores, and relatively small increases in GDP per capita realise big reductions in climate vulnerability. A similar connection can be found in the relationships between the Human Development Index, and the Social Development Index, and perceived happiness and GDP.

A future climate may pose yet unknown challenges, challenges that smaller projects 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.

The climate is not the only thing that is changing

The current consensus seems to be that we are locked into a 1.5oC increase in global temperatures. But it is not all doom and gloom. Future investments in renewable energy will dwarf investments in fossil fuels. New battery technologies and cheaper solar panels may change the way we use, store 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. Renewed focus on all the SDGs, and a growing global awareness of the links between inequality, climate change and migration may drive making these technologies available in developing countries, even in the face of nationalist-populist movements.

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. However, we also need to look to the immediate needs of the poor in dealing with the current climate variability, which will provide the platform for growth. Larger projects that boost economic growth, and draw in the poor, like the SVIP may be the way to go.

Image: credit CIFOR.

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