Bones of the city

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The writer advises on social and economic infrastructure.
The writer advises on social and economic infrastructure.

HIGH-impact disasters are recurring too frequently, paralysing large urbanised populations. They also impose heavier economic tolls each time they strike. Ecologists can better explain the phenomenon, but we also need to understand ways to optimise urban services during and after disasters, and minimise their financial burden.

Waiting for disasters to evaluate public policy is not smart. In the next few decades, the world will spend more than ever on urbanisation. If investment is not routed towards building urban infrastructure to withstand stress the first time around, it will be a lot more expensive to rebuild later. Leadership needs to understand this trade-off and empower experts to weigh the costs.

All megacities have immense infrastructure needs. All face excessive migration and resource constraints. And most are stuck in the rut of overlapping roles, and a race for the spoils.

The current debate on how to rebuild Karachi must not be allowed to favour hurried, non-inclusive solutions. Nor should fortunes be spent on Band-Aid style patchwork development with dubious resilience. Disaster-resilient infrastructure is incumbent for public safety and competitiveness.

More than ever, leaders are recognising the need to collaborate.

For this, business, government and society must collaborate. As crippling damage to built infrastructure becomes common, so do examples of collaboration in disaster prevention, preparation and management to strengthen communities and livelihoods.

The sooner business and government foster partnerships and develop trust, the more promptly they act during disasters. Participation from the community is central throughout the cycle of prevention, preparedness, response, recovery and rebuilding. As always, local voices matter, even though government organisations may feel compelled to dictate because they have the mettle and the mandate.

The first step to resilient rebuilding is gaining a systematic understanding of the existing critical infrastructure. This involves identifying links in the system — bridges, water supply, waste water lines, power grids, etc — with weaknesses. It means looking at infrastructure as a series of interdependent systems and trying to design flexibility with independent strategies for delivery.

This demands preparedness from the government, business, community leaders, and experts in urban planning, environment and policy. Each must be fully empowered to play on their strengths, which makes it easier to work through the cycle, moving the community into recovery and reconstruction.

Many Karachi businesses have rooted systemic resilience through their business continuity planning. Many have credentials in matters of public good. The public sector represents the citizens’ needs and experience in dealing with emergencies. It has the legitimacy to define and negotiate the terms of engagement with the private sector.

The traditional public procurement to build infrastructure often means delays, cost overruns, substandard quality and profiteering. Governments everywhere are keen to build resilient infrastructure that saves lives and protects the economic future. More than ever, leaders are recognising the need to collaborate.

This partnership can be modelled so that the public sector retains ownership of infrastructure, while the private sector designs, builds, finances, operates and maintains it. These roles can be assigned to the private sector through transparent agreements, setting high standards for performance, efficiency and timeliness. Payments would depend on delivery and achieving results.

At present, there may be only a few local developers investing in infrastructure other than energy and telecom, as this option was never explored for building urban infrastructure. But the skills and expertise are present, and the interest may soon follow if the terms are equitable.

Attracting the private sector as a long-term partner requires that projects make commercial sense. This is not easy when developing municipal or social infrastructure, but not impossible either. Both parties need to discuss the trade-offs, and how to co-invest for resilience, but within economic norms. Obviously, one of the tensions is how can public money be used to benefit private companies? This question should be reframed: how can public money be used to provide for the public good? Most effectively.

The late Perween Rahman — an urban planner, social activist and one of Karachi’s most acclaimed daughters — hit the nail on the head when she said, “Instead of bringing mega-projects, what is really needed is mega management, which requires intellect and coordination, and a lot of dialogue and cooperation.”

Hyping the ‘resilience’ of Karachi’s residents is passé. They are as fatigued as the diseased bones of their city. If a broken and sick Karachi caters to everyone, one with strong bones would be an economic powerhouse.

The writer advises on social and economic infrastructure.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2020