How Can We Make Infrastructure More Resilient For Climate Change Adaptation?

Originally published in Youth Ki Awaaz here

Mitigation and adaptation are two approaches to tackle climate change. Mitigation refers to breakthrough solutions, innovations and paradigm transformations to change business-as-usual. It typically requires more investment, science, and the gestation-period, to try out workable solutions for longer. Adaptation derives from adjust, i.e. how we adjust to the adverse impacts of climate change in an effective and efficient manner without waiting for breakthrough innovations or paradigm transformation, because simply put, we cannot just sit and wait that long! Adaptation refers to reducing the vulnerabilities of our social and natural ecosystems to climate shocks and build our resilience against them.

Most global discourse around climate change solutions has revolved around mitigation, rather than adaptation. Talking about paradigm transformations and innovations sounds fancier at conferences and public forums. It creates that ‘wow’ factor. At the risk of sounding undiplomatic, there is also scope to pull much more monies for a mitigation project, especially in developing countries’ projects, where green-washed and inconsistent monitoring data often raise questions, whilst accounting for every invested dollar.

Adaptation does not often create that big-bang, wow image. The scope for fancy-talk at elite events is much less. Not surprisingly, the amount of finance approved by the multilateral climate funds is more for mitigation than adaptation. However, change is occurring now. There is a growing realization, especially amongst the discussants from the government bodies, development agencies and the United Nations, that there is not much time to sit and wait for big-bang, and often scientifically untested, mitigation strategies and that adaptation offers a low-hanging fruit. This is a positive move.

What Is The Best ‘First-Step’ To Start Thinking About Adaptation Strategies?

It starts by creating a resilient infrastructure. Resilience is our, and our resources’, ability to withstand climate shocks. Our infrastructure would anyway be impacted by the physical effects of climate change, both directly and indirectly. To provide some perspective, an extreme flood situation in a city affects our roads and houses (direct impact), but the flood also hits electricity and transport networks which causes business losses to the enterprises in that city (indirect impact). All these form part of our infrastructure. Humans also form part of the infrastructure, since the losses caused by a flood would also impact human capital in terms of continuity, productivity and motivation.

Resilient infrastructure could include anything from improving the city’s drainage system to reduce flooding risks, using porous pavements instead of conventional block pavements to reduce the use of GHG-creating cement/concrete, while facilitating rainwater infiltration into the ground-water table. Additionally, investing in early-warning and monitoring systems, building sea-walls around low-lying coastal areas, changing the composition of materials used for roads, so that they do not easily deform to heat-waves or floods, building irrigation channels or water storage infrastructure to divert flood-waters from collecting in plains or where the absorbing wetlands are now ruined.

Changing the height or materials used in electricity lines to reduce the risk from water corrosion and/or floods, fitting tin/cement roofs in village huts to reduce the damage to homes from extreme rains, using less glass in tall buildings to reduce heat entrapment and the high need for air-conditioning, or  creating flexible work-from-home working systems are other options.

In their annual economic plans, policymakers need to prioritise retrofitting of infrastructure assets, to better withstand climate shocks with hard defences or similar engineering solutions, or even nature-based solutions. Economics-wise, climate-resilient infrastructure would increase the service life of that infrastructure, thus protecting returns and reducing losses. Benefits could include lower insurance claims, or maybe even premiums, apart from lower repair costs. It would also reduce the risk of stranded assets. Since future disasters are uncertain, the climate fund industry finds it difficult to discount climate investments. In this context, engineered retrofits to existing, or currently being built, infrastructure might just be an easier process to implement. For new infrastructure concessions, it might make sense to include resilience aspects in the tender-bid and public procurement processes.

The Gender Dimension

Making our infrastructure resilient to climate change also has a gender dimension. Men and women use infrastructure differently and face different challenges in the absence of it. For instance, in most low-income countries, women would value an infrastructure like piped water more than men, because it is the women who have to walk long distances daily to bring the water in pots. With climate change changing the very availability of that water, the risks to those women increases, sometimes making them easy targets of crimes against women. Piped water, in this manner, saves women from this new ordeal, apart from assuring the household’s normal functioning with assured drinking water. In short, looking at the gender aspects of climate-resilient infrastructure could go a long way in building sustainable societies.

Of course, mainstreaming such adaptation tweaks would require some specialised tools and skills, often unavailable to low-income countries. However, acquiring this expertise might require less time and investment, as compared to mitigation alternatives. These tools could include anything from geospatial planning to identify risk-prone geographies, making vulnerability maps, engineering tools, environmental impact assessments, devising regulatory and building codes. Policy realignment is also needed to ensure the current policy and regulatory framework do not distort the incentives or discourage the implementation of adaptation techniques.

In the end, no solution is fool-proof, especially solutions to climate change on which research and studies are still being conducted as we write. The time is quite far when once can say which solution would work in which situation, without any downside. But our resources and societies may not be able to wait that long, since climate shocks, and resultant damages, are already occurring each year. The time is now to pick low-hanging fruits, and making our infrastructure resilient, and climate adaptation might just be one of them!

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