I was reflecting on the saying that “ignorance is bliss” as our plane was landing in Tuvalu, a small island nation in the South Pacific. We had been advised that portions of the recent runway resealing was failing in a number of locations, but it was the video below—showing the runway ‘floating’ under the weight of someone walking on it—that was particularly disconcerting. Runways are supposed to be solid!
Tuvalu has regularly been called the ‘canary in the coal mine’ when it comes to climate change. The country is comprised of three reef islands and six coral atolls. With the maximum elevation of 3-4 m, and sea level rise of some 5 mm/year, it is already at a risk of a range of climate change challenges. Now we have a new one: runway failure from beneath caused by what appears to be a combination of very high (‘king’) tides and increased rainfall.
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The rains in northern Peru have been 10 times stronger than usual this year, leading to floods, landslides and a declaration of a state of emergency in 10 regions in the country. Together with the human and economic toll, these downpours have inflicted tremendous damage to transport infrastructure with added and serious consequences on people’s lives.
These heavy rains are blamed on El Niño, a natural phenomenon characterized by an unusual warming of the sea surface temperature in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. This phenomenon occurs every two to seven years, and lasts about 18 months at a time. El Niño significantly disrupts precipitation and wind patterns, giving rise to extreme weather events around the planet.
In Peru, this translates into rising temperatures along the north coast and intense rainfall, typically shortly before Christmas. That’s also when “huaicos” appear. “Huaico,” a word that comes from the Quechua language (wayq’u), refers to the enormous masses of mud and rocks carried by torrential rains from the Andes into rivers, causing them to overflow. These mudslides result from a combination of several natural factors including heavy rains, steep slopes, scarce vegetation, to name a few. But human factors also come into play and exacerbate their impact. That includes, in particular, the construction of human settlements in flood-prone basins or the absence of a comprehensive approach to disaster risk management.
This year’s floods are said to be comparable to those caused by El Niño in 1997-1998, one of the largest natural disasters in recent history, which claimed the lives of 374 people and caused US$1.2 billion worth of damages (data provided by the Peruvian National Institute of Civil Defense).
Development professionals often complain about the absence of good-quality data in disaster-prone areas, which limits their ability to inform projects through quantitative models and detailed analysis.
Technological progress, however, is quickly creating new ways for governments and development agencies to overcome data scarcity. In Belize, the World Bank has partnered with the government to develop an innovative approach and inform climate-resilient road investments through the combination of creativity, on-the-ground experience, and strategic data collection.
Underdeveloped infrastructure, particularly in the transport sector, is a key constraint to disaster risk mitigation and economic growth in Belize. The road network is particularly vulnerable due to the lack of redundancy and exposure to natural hazards (mostly flooding). In the absence of alternative routes, any weather-related road closure can cut access and severely disrupt economic and social movement.
In 2012, the government made climate resilience one of their key policy priorities, and enlisted the World Bank’s help in developing a program to reduce climate vulnerability, with a specific focus on the road network. The institution answered the call and assembled a team of experts that brought a wide range of expertise, along with experience from other climate resilience interventions throughout the Caribbean. The program was supported by Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) European Union funds, managed by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR).
Our strategy to address data scarcity in Belize involves three successive, closely related steps.
For many countries, damages and losses related to transport are a significant proportion of the economic impacts of disasters, often more than destruction to housing and agricult+ure in value terms. For example, a fiscal disaster risk assessment in Sri Lanka highlighted that over 1/3 of all damages and losses over the past 15 years were to the transport network. In addition, climate change increases the damages and losses.
In the Kyrgyz Republic, where 96% of all cargo travels by road, any disaster-related disruptions to the road network would have severe repercussions on the economy. The Minister of Transport and Roads, Mr. Zhamshitbek Kalilov, is charged with protecting these systems from all kinds of natural hazards, from avalanches to floods.
Held in Tokyo, the week-long exchange brought together World Bank clients and teams from 16 countries across all regions to share concepts and practices on resilient transport, including systems planning, engineering and design, asset management, and contingency programming. The exchange drew upon the experience of several countries and international experts who showcased innovative approaches and practical advice on how to address risk at every phase of the infrastructure life-cycle.
Few things are more depressing than seeing the damage caused by cyclones on transport infrastructure. Especially when it is a causeway that was only formally opened less than one month before the storm. That is what I found in early 2014 when participating in the Tonga Cyclone Ian Post Disaster Needs Assessment. The cyclone was a typical example of the heavy toll that climate change is taking on transport infrastructure, particularly in the most vulnerable countries.
Engineers are taught that water is the greatest enemy of transport infrastructure, and unfortunately climate change is leading to an increase in floods and storms, especially within the South-East Asia region. For example, the figure below shows the number of floods and storms for some Asian countries between 2000 and 2008. The significant increase in the number of floods is self-evident.
In 2015, severe floods washed away a series of bridges in Mozambique’s Nampula province, leaving several small villages completely isolated. Breslau, a local engineer and one of our counterparts, knew that rebuilding those bridges would take months. Breslau took his motorbike and drove the length of the river to look for other roads, trails, or paths to help the villagers avoid months of isolation. He eventually found an old earth path that was quickly cleaned up and restored… After a few days, the villagers had an alternative to the destroyed bridge, reconnecting them to the rest of the network and the country.
What happened in the Nampula province perfectly illustrates how a single weather event can quickly paralyze transport connections, bringing communities and economies to a screeching halt. There are many more examples of this phenomenon, which affects both developing and developed countries. On March 30th, a section of the I-85 interstate collapsed in Atlanta, causing schools to close and forcing many people to work from home. In Peru, food prices increase in Lima when the carretera central is disrupted by landslides because agricultural products can’t be brought to market.
How can we help countries improve the resilience of their transport networks in a context of scarce resources and rising climate uncertainty?
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Over the past three years and a half, our team has been working on a transport project with the state of São Paulo in Brazil. The project involves a lot of traveling, including frequent commutes between the World Bank office in Brasilia and the State Department of Transport in São Paulo (DER-SP)—a journey that is estimated to take 2 hours and 40 minutes. This includes the time to drive from the World Bank office to Brasilia Airport, flight time, and commuting from São Paulo’s Congonhas Airport to the State Department of Transport.
Let’s say that, on a typical Wednesday, the team needs to attend a meeting in São Paulo. To ensure we can make it on time, we plan our day carefully, book our flights and define the right time to leave the office in Brasilia. With a plan in place, we leave the office at 10:00 am and head to Brasilia Airport. The first leg of the trip takes 35 minutes and we manage to arrive early for our 11:00 am flight, which, unfortunately, is delayed by 20 minutes. We land in São Paulo, quickly get out of the terminal, and manage to hop on a taxi at 1:20pm… not bad! We are now on the last leg of our journey, a mere 14-kilometer drive between Congonhas Airport and the meeting place, which is supposed to take only 20 minutes. However, there is a short thunderstorm that floods the city and closes off key streets. This single event leads to complete traffic chaos along the way, and our planned 20-minute transfer from the airport turns into a 1-hour-and-15-minute ordeal. These traffic disruptions have a serious impact on our meeting as well, as some Department of Transport staff cannot join and some items of the agenda cannot be discussed.
This incident may seem anecdotal, but it is a good illustration of our extreme dependency on transport systems and the weaknesses associated with it. Because transport is so critical to our social and economic lives, it is extremely important to understand, anticipate, and minimize the different types of risks that may impact transport systems.
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Bridges are critical links in the transport network. In their position across waterways, they are exposed to the full effects of flooding and landslides, and are often the first pieces of infrastructure to be damaged in the event of a disaster. They also typically take weeks or months to repair. Besides causing expensive damage to the infrastructure itself, disruptions in connectivity also have a much broader impact on economic productivity and people’s ability to access essential services. As many places are expected to witness more intense and frequent rainfall as a result of climate change, the risk to bridges will only worsen: more rainfall will lead to bigger river flows and more damage to bridges, especially those designed to handle smaller storms.
At each end of a bridges is a structure which supports the weight of the deck. These are known as abutments, and they are often the first part of the bridge to fail. Blockage of the main channel by debris can cause water to look for the path of least resistance around the sides of the bridges, thus placing the abutments at risk.
Traditional bridge construction requires the installation of piles for the foundations of abutments—a lengthy and expensive process that involves specialist materials, skills and equipment.
But there is another promising solution: Geosynthetic Reinforced Soil (GRS) abutments. These allow for rapid and resilient construction of bridge abutments using locally available materials, without specialized equipment. With GRS, bridges can be constructed in as little as five days (Von Handorf, 2013) and at a cost 30-50% lower than traditional approaches (Tonkin and Taylor, 2016) .
GRS abutments are based on ‘geogrids,’ a high density mesh made out of polyethylene (plastic). Layers of soil and geogrid are combined to create a solid foundation for the bridge deck. Construction can be completed with basic earthmoving and compaction equipment, and a range of local fill materials can be used with guidance from geotechnical specialists.
India is in the midst of implementing PMGSY, a $35-billion national level Rural Road Program designed to provide basic road access to rural communities. The World Bank is supporting PMGSY through a series of lending operations ($1.8 billion in Bank funding) and significant knowledge support. A key element of the Bank’s support has been to integrate a “climate and green growth lens” into these efforts in cost-effective ways.
How is “green growth” benefiting India? One important dimension of that effort has been the use of environmentally optimized road designs, which has resulted in quality infrastructure using local and marginal materials, providing both economic and environmental benefits. Where available, sand deposits accumulated from frequent floods, industrial by-products, and certain types of plastic, mining, and construction waste have been used to good effect. Designs that use such materials have been about 25% cheaper to build, on average, than those requiring commonly used rock aggregates. The environmental benefits of using the above materials, in terms of addressing the big disposal problem of such materials and reducing the consumption of scarce natural stone aggregates, are as significant as the cost savings.
A second “green growth” dimension has been focusing investments on the “core” network, i.e. the network India needs to develop in order to provide access to all villages. Relative to a total rural road network of about 3.3 million kilometers, the core network that falls under PMGSY stretches over only 1.1 million kilometers. Prioritizing construction and maintenance on those critical road links will bring down costs as well as the associated carbon footprint.
Already transport damages and losses often make up a significant proportion of the economic impacts of disasters, frequently surpassing destruction to housing and agriculture in value terms. For example, a fiscal disaster risk assessment in Sri Lanka highlighted that over 1/3 of all damages and losses over the past 15 years were to the transport network. Damage is sustained not only by road surfaces or structures, but also by bridges, culverts, and other drainage works, while losses occur when breaks in transport links lead to reduced economic activity.
Compounding the challenge of addressing these conditions is the difficulty that exists in precisely forecasting the magnitude, and in some cases the direction, of changing climactic parameters for any particular location. Meanwhile, the risk of wasting scarce resources by ‘over designing’ is as real as the dangers of climate damage to under designed infrastructure.
To identify the optimal response of our client governments to this threat and to ensure that all transport infrastructure supported by the Bank is disaster and climate resilient, we have created a joint partnership between the Bank’s transport and disaster risk management (DRM) communities – a partnership of complementary expertise to identify practical cost-effective approaches to an evolving challenge. We have come together to better define where roads and other transport assets should be built, how they should be maintained, and how they can be repaired quickly after a disaster to enable swift recovery.