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Cyclone Idai, possibly the worst ever weather disaster to hit the southern hemisphere, has laid bare governments’ lack of preparedness. Given Africa’s high exposure to a wide range of natural hazards, we cannot afford to ignore the risk.
Climate change will only exacerbate the frequency and magnitude of such events, increasing the vulnerability of millions of Africans. The design and planning of cities and physical infrastructure must be climate resilient if we are to avoid such calamity in future.
The cyclone that ripped through Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe last month revealed that existing urban infrastructure, and that which connects towns, cities and countries, is not fit to withstand the weather events we can expect to be seeing. Roads, homes, buildings, dams, bridges, transmission lines and pipelines were severely damaged and, in some cases, swept away entirely. This impact on infrastructure ushers in its own havoc, disrupting access to health, water, energy, communication and food and resulting in further loss of life.
As affected countries move from coping to recovering, it is clear that we need a new approach to how we design, plan and build physical infrastructure and that recovery happens in a manner that provides survivors with dignified, long-term solutions.
Resilience is a concept that provides a useful way to frame a response to the growing risk that extreme weather events become disasters. A resilient approach demands that nations design, plan and construct physical infrastructure to withstand more frequently and intensely extreme weather events. Put simply, resilience is the ability of individuals, communities, organisations and governments to anticipate, reduce the impacts of, cope with and recover from disasters.
Africa’s response to disasters like cyclone Idai has been largely reactive, focusing on addressing immediate needs. While this is crucial, just as important is a proactive approach that anticipates emerging challenges and mitigates associated risks. Business as usual approaches will lead to the kind of results Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are now facing.
Embracing new technology and innovation is key to developing and adopting infrastructure that is resilient to climate change. Climate-resilient infrastructure is planned designed, built and operated in a way that anticipates and reduces the impacts of climate change. Low levels of technical expertise and weak institutional capacity including issues of intellectual property rights often hamper technology transfer. Only strong political will can overcome such obstacles.
Governments have a critical role to play in ensuring safe infrastructure through appropriate policy frameworks, a climate for exchange of ideas, opportunities to turn ideas into action through funding, partnerships and encouraging working across sectors and disciplines. Long-time horizons underpin resilient solutions; this means going beyond survival and business as usual approaches. Merely repairing the damaged infrastructure using traditional construction methods is tantamount to “kicking the can down the road” and will prove costly in the long-run.
Cyclone Idai has exposed the interconnectedness of nations through their economies and infrastructure. The transboundary nature of much of the linear infrastructure damaged by cyclone Idai, including pipelines and roads, illustrates that a regional or trans-boundary approach to climate resilient infrastructure is required for long-term resilience and securing viable energy networks and transportation systems for goods and people. It’s only with high-levels of sustained collaboration and partnerships in harmonizing policies and standards and innovating solution that Africa will prosper as it faces new climate change challenges.
The broader impacts of climate change on infrastructure are only now being recognised in Africa. The reduced capacity of hydropower dams, shortened road maintenance cycles, disruption to critical services due to damaged bridges and buildings can have major impacts on a country’s economy and the wellbeing of its people. The World Bank, the African Development Bank and the Economic Commission for Africa all accept that climate resilient infrastructure is an imperative for the African continent. The three institutions have launched the Climate Resilient Investment Facility (AFRI-RES) with the aim of strengthening African capacity to integrate climate resilience into the design of energy, water, agriculture and transport investments.
Yemi Katerere coordinates the African Ecological Futures Programme, a partnership with the African Development Bank, UNEP, WWF and the Luc Hofmann Institute