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Disaster Resilience

What El Niño has taught us about infrastructure resilience

Irene Portabales González's picture
Also available in: Español
Photo: Ministerio de Defensa del Perú/Flickr
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).

Climate and disaster risk in transport: No data? No problem!

Frederico Pedroso's picture
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.

The “plastic bridge”: a low-cost, high-impact solution to address climate risk

Oliver Whalley's picture
Also available in: Français
Photo: Anthony Doudt/Flickr
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.

Climate change is forcing us to reinvent rural transport for the better

Ashok Kumar's picture
Photo: Ravisankar Pandian/Flickr
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.

A new partnership to enhance the climate resilience of transport infrastructure

Shomik Mehndiratta's picture
Photo: Norsez Oh/Flickr
Since 2002, more than 260,000 kilometers of road were constructed or rehabilitated by World Bank supported projects. For these investments, and future Bank transport investments to really realize their intended impact supporting the Bank to achieve its twin goals, we believe it is critical that they are resilient to climate and possible climate change.
 
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.
 
Along with additional stress from swelling urban populations worldwide, rising sea levels, changes in temperatures and rain patterns, and increasing severity and frequency of floods and storm events are the key climate change factors that make conditions more volatile. Ultimately it is these scenarios and their potential outcomes that threaten the longevity and functionality of much existing transport infrastructure. Indeed, damage to transport infrastructure and consequent disruption to communities from climactic events is a growing threat.
 
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.