Yes SIR (Storms, Infrastructure, and Resilience)

Photo credit: UNDP. Irma in Dominican Republic.

By Marcio Pontual


One aspect highlighted by the tropical storms that have whipped North America and the Caribbean is the importance of infrastructure. If infrastructures role in preventing weather extremes is hard to assess, it is easy to measure its importance to cope, tackle and recover from floods, droughts, and whatever the skies send down. However, if the second (Texas) and fourth (Florida) wealthiest states in the USA[1] are having a hard time to improve, maintain and recover their infrastructure, imagine the challenges in poor locations in developing countries.

Achieving the 2030 Agenda will demand significant resources. The more modest estimates call for investments of approximately US$2.5 trillion/year to implement the Agenda. Most of that will be used to cope with the effects of climate change, especially to build, retrofit, and maintain resilient infrastructure (SDSN 2015).[2] Moreover, the inequality that the Agenda tries to combat also affects national budgets -- not only are some countries richer than others, but within countries some municipalities are wealthier than the average. This, as a result, impacts where resources are prioritized, affecting investments in and access to infrastructure.

Whilst Texas and Florida have a vast network of roads to take care of and maintain, in several countries millions lack access to roads. According to the World Bank, with better roads, farmers can bring produce to markets more efficiently, and families can more easily get to schools, hospitals, and other facilities. Enhancing rural road connectivity also helps in the long term by elevating agricultural productivity, business profitability, and employment.[3] But according to the SDG Atlas only 17% (7 million) of Zambias population has easy access to roads; more than 10 million people, almost half of the Nepali[4] population, cannot easily access reliable roads. For sake of comparison, Harvey-hit city of Houston has a total population of less than 7 million inhabitants[5], and less than 7 million inhabitants[6] left the state of Florida, mostly by roads, after the state government ordered population to evacuate to avoid hurricane Irma.

But infrastructure goes beyond roads: ports, railways, powergrids, airports, water systems, etc., are all also important infrastructure. The US government lists 16 sectors, called critical infrastructure, that are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.[7] Infrastructure is not only essential to social and economic development of a country, but also necessary for being able to best respond to extreme weather that climate change is catalyzing. That is why the 2030 Agenda has a specific goal (SDG #9) to deal with infrastructure. The objective of this goal is to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. It is worth calling attention to the target that says: facilitate sustainable and resilient infrastructure development in developing countries through enhanced financial, technological and technical support to African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States.

The United Nations (UN) stresses that since not all infrastructure is equal, future ventures need to be resilient and climate smart, otherwise a significant part of the investments might be lost. Maintenance is an Achilles heel in several developing countries in which governments defer maintenance investments, requiring more costly reconstruction. That means not only insufficient, but also non-operational infrastructure.  Lets leave aside the reasons for that and focus on the fact that scarce, badly kept or decaying infrastructure is not able to fulfill its role.

The well documented damage brought to some parts of the US by hurricanes Harvey and Irma gives an idea on the level of vulnerability of small island states to extreme weather. Due to its density and geography, the infrastructure on the Caribbean islands is not only more vulnerable to tropical storms, but there are also less people and resources available to repair damages brought about by such storms. For example, Haiti is still recovering from the impacts of last years devastating Hurricane Matthew. Another additional bottleneck is the fact that on some islands, French and British colonies et alii (e.g. St. Martin and the BVI), the decision-making process is taken thousands of kilometers away.[8] In these cases, help takes a while to arrive and local populations need to struggle with crippled infrastructure much longer than in the case of continental US.

The UN recognizes the importance of infrastructure in socioeconomic development and calls for addressing environmental concerns when designing it. The problem is that even well-planned, built and maintained infrastructure might not cope with extreme weather events. That implies increased expenses for maintenance. It is not an easy sell to politicians and taxpayers, but investing in resilient infrastructure pays off in several aspects. UN calculation points out that in some African countries, infrastructure constrains firms productivity by up to 40%.[9] Nevertheless, working (or partially operational) infrastructure during extreme events is invaluable. 

Scientific data points out that an increase in the number of warm days and maximum temperature records due to climate change are likely to increase extreme weather events (including boosting hurricanes).[10] As hurricanes get stronger[11] so too does their impact on infrastructure, which tends to impact the poor disproportionally.  Due to lack of considerable reserves, the poor must stay and rely on external help and (re)start, many times, from scratch. In view of the needs of the ones further behind and in respect to taxpayers money, investments must be channeled to resilient options, especially in zones which still lack any infrastructure. Resisting the powers of mother nature is futile. Adapting to it is smart.

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[1] This is part of a working paper that deals with extreme weather events and SDGs that will be published by the UNDP RIO+ Centre

[2] 2016 GDP figures, extracted from, accessed on 11 September 2017: https://www.bea.gov/iTable/drilldown.cfm?reqid=70&stepnum=11&AreaTypeKeyGdp=1&GeoFipsGdp=XX&ClassKeyGdp=naics&ComponentKey=200&IndustryKey=1&YearGdp=2016&YearGdpBegin=-1&YearGdpEnd=-1&UnitOfMeasureKeyGdp=levels&RankKeyGdp=1&Drill=1&nRange=5

[3] SDSN. (2015). Investment Needs to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Understanding the Billions and Trillions. SDSN Working Paper Version 2 12 November 2015. Available at: http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/151112-SDG-Financing-Needs.pdf accessed on 11 September 2017

[5] Nepal and other Asian countries were also severely affected by storms in 2017. This text deliberately not focuses on them to stress the different impacts caused by the same storms in different countries.

[6] https://www.dshs.texas.gov/chs/popdat/ST2017.shtm accessed on 11 September 2017

[7] http://edition.cnn.com/2017/09/08/us/hurricane-irma-evacuation-florida/index.html accessed on 12 September 2017

[8] https://www.dhs.gov/critical-infrastructure-sectors accessed on 12 September 2017

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/15/world/americas/hurricane-irma-st-martin.html?mcubz=0 accessed on 19 September 2017

[10] http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-9-industry-innovation-and-infrastructure/targets/ accessed on 12 September 2017

[11] https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/ClimateStorms/page2.php accessed on 12 September 2017

[12] https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2625/hot-water-ahead-for-hurricane-irma/ accessed on 12 September 2017