Climate resilience

Published May 21, 2024

WHILE the modern economy depends heavily on the smooth operation of critical infrastructure to deliver basic services, there are new challenges confronting the sustainability and durability of this infrastructure. Climate change is one such challenge. Notwithstanding the lack of data and adequate reporting, estimates show that climate-related natural disasters disrupted basic services such as health, education, and transport in at least 44 reporting countries in 2020 and 2021.

According to the World Bank, the financial toll of infrastructure disruptions in low- and middle-income countries reached up to $647 billion in 2019. If there is one thing that developing countries like Pakistan need to learn from this, it is to ensure that development gains are preserved. This means that there is an urgent need to develop the resilience of critical infrastructure to enable it to withstand climate shocks, such as floods. However, the current approach to infrastructure development rarely factors in climate risks and the cascading impact of climate-related disasters. Similarly, high upfront costs often discourage the incorporation of the climate resilience aspect in infrastructure development.

Whenever a natural disaster, such as floods, hits Pakistan, it destroys infrastructure, depriving people of access to basic services, including water supply, sanitation, electricity, health, and transport to the nearest market to buy food and other needed supplies. The disruption of basic services during natural disasters amplifies the exposure of the affected population; it aggravates their vulnerability and undermines resilience.

The damage to critical infrastructure also has indirect effects. For example, evidence shows that small businesses that provide livelihood to low-income households suffer losses due to the disruption of transport and electricity supply and not the flood itself. However, infrastructure resilience improves the reliability of service provision and increases the life of assets — including those which are of an income-generating nature — thereby protecting returns, enabling livelihood diversification, and reducing disaster risk.

Infrastructure that is resilient to climate shock must be a priority.

Since Pakistan has yet to invest in decarbonisation to achieve Nationally Determined Contributions targets etc, investing in climate-resilient infrastructure could be a win-win situation. It would allow the economy to decarbonise and also develop resilience to climate shocks. Making infrastructure resilient to climate shock would mean a marginal increase in the total investment cost. But, not only would these be recouped soon, the extra effort will increase the lifetime of an asset. Nevertheless, investments in climate-resilient and low-carbon infrastructure need a fundamental transformation of critical infrastructure systems, which should be reflected in the projects’ planning, design, and delivery. A crucial element is to incorporate this aspect into the public procurement process, while considering different proposals.

With Pakistan highly vulnerable to climate change and the frequency and intensity of climate-induced natural disasters expected to increase, ensuring infrastructure resilience should be a priority of the government. This requires prioritising investments to develop this resilience and mitigate the impact of natural disasters on vulnerable communities. In addition to such investments, assessing the resilience of existing infrastructure and improving weaknesses is also important to cope with natural disasters. This would req­uire developing quantitative and qualitative techniques and methods to ass­ess the resilience of a system to a po­­t­ential natural disaster.

In addition to spearheading the resources, generating high-quality data and inf­ormation, deve­loping required tools, and improving the technical and institutional capacity of relevant departments are crucial to supporting decision-making under uncertain climatic conditions. Integrating this aspect of uncertainty in the planning, development and deployment of tools for decision-making can mitigate infrastructural damage and post-disaster reconstruction costs.

Similarly, leveraging nature-based solutions can significantly reduce climate risks and help develop infrastructure resilience. Nature-based solutions do much to ensure that infrastructure has a harmonious relationship with the natural environment, so that environmental sustainability is not undermined by weak infrastructure. Such infrastructure assets and corresponding basic services are better protected against climate shocks.

The writer has a PhD degree in economics from Durham University, UK. He is director of research programmes for the Social Protection Resource Centre, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2024

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