Building Infrastructure to withstand climate change –  Emeka Umeche

South African municipalities have well-documented struggles of service delivery that routinely lead to community unrest. The country lies in a region that is expected to be adversely impacted by climate change and extreme weather events, something which is expected to occur regularly. This impact will vary across the country, and will test the resilience of municipal infrastructure.

Given what we saw in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape recently with the devastating floods, the question must be asked: how are municipalities, as the custodians of local infrastructure, preparing for the inevitable impact of climate change on their infrastructure and the corresponding impact on service delivery? Municipal infrastructure is key for economic development as well as ensuring a decent quality of life, but is vulnerable to the impact of climate change, a clear and present danger that we all must learn to live with.

It is my considered view that municipalities must begin incorporating climate-resilience as a consideration in all planned infrastructure development initiatives. Climate resilient infrastructure, as defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, refers to infrastructure that is planned, constructed and operated in such a way that it predicts, prepares for, and adapts to changing climate conditions. This means special investigations must be undertaken to anticipate as best as possible the changing climatic conditions and developing resilience to them.

Resilient infrastructure can also tolerate, respond to, and recover quickly from disruptions brought on by climate change. Climate resilience is an iterative process that continues throughout the municipal infrastructure’s life, and efforts to improve climate resilience can be mutually reinforcing with efforts to improve natural disaster resilience.

In our experience, incorporating climate resilience as a key consideration in infrastructure planning will provide municipalities with a proactive method of managing the impact from climate change. Unfortunately, as we have seen, infrastructure-vulnerable areas for the most part overlap with areas inhabited by the poor in our society. When disasters such as the KZN and Eastern Cape floods strike, these communities are less resilient to the effects of the disaster and are typically ill-prepared to immediate recovery measures. This intersection of social vulnerabilities and climate change impact highlights the importance of using recovery funds to prepare for future risks to ensure that infrastructure is built with resilience ab initio.

This way municipalities can protect the poor of our society as much as possible from climate change impact, while also ensuring municipal infrastructure is able to perform its duty despite disaster, or at the very least, recover quickly from the impact of a natural disaster.

There is extensive literature on how to make infrastructure more resilient, however there is very little written on the proper incorporation of climate resilience in infrastructure planning, particularly for a climate change hotspot like South Africa. Consequently, municipalities must consider undertaking research to understand the baseline conditions for planned infrastructure needs to align with climate change realities. Additionally, municipalities need to develop a list of risk mitigation priorities for critical infrastructure, guided by the anticipated severity of the risk impact and recoverability from the impact. Furthermore, municipalities must begin specifying infrastructure planning and design improvements that focus on their vulnerabilities – such as flooding and drought, and solve for resilience to natural disaster such as investigations into updated floodplain mapping and projected sea levels.

Additionally, municipalities must incorporate green-infrastructure by using the natural landscape as much as possible and revisiting operations and maintenance practices to mirror expected increase in occurrence of extreme weather events. Finally, municipalities must incorporate existing social differences to ensure that each project not only improves the infrastructure’s resilience to climate change, but also ensures the poor in society are considered.

Municipal infrastructure is complex and interdependent, this infrastructure, for the most part, is under pressure due to growing demand, and has become fragile due to lapses in governance and inadequate investment in regular maintenance. Considering the anticipated impact of climate change, this infrastructure will have to operate in an increasingly uncertain future in which we cannot predict or avoid shocks and stresses. It is therefore essential for municipal infrastructure to be prepared for the threats we can anticipate, and to be able to respond to the threats we cannot anticipate. This ensures that the infrastructure is able to provide essential services on which society and our economy depends.

The importance of resilient infrastructure cannot be overstated, and its consideration cuts across several sectors including the municipalities that are the custodians, government developing policy, engineers responsible for the design, and residents who are the users and ultimate custodians of this infrastructure. Climate change is upon us and municipalities will have to deal with its impact. It is in our collective interest to plan for this impact rather than getting caught unaware.

Emeka Umeche is an engagement manager at Ntiyiso Consulting Group.

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