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disaster risk management

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 road to resilience: sharing technical knowledge on transport across borders

Shanika Hettige's picture
Photo: Sinkdd/Flickr
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.
 
Working to support country officials, like Mr. Kalilov, is why the World Bank Resilient Transport Community of Practice (CoP) and the Disaster Risk Management Hub of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) organized the Technical Knowledge Exchange on Resilient Transport on May 8-12.

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.

Climate is changing… So the way we manage roads needs to change as well

Chris Bennett's picture
Photo: Christopher R. Bennett/World Bank
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.

Preparing transport for an uncertain climate future: I don’t have a crystal ball, but I have a computer

Julie Rozenberg's picture
Photo: Alex Wynter/Flickr
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?

Are roads and highways the Achilles Heel of Brazil?

Frederico Pedroso's picture
Also available in: Português
Photo: Ricardo Giaviti/Flickr
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.

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.

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.

General Aviation and Disaster Relief

Charles E. Schlumberger's picture

When a disaster strikes, such as a hurricane or a major earthquake, relief efforts are often hampered by destroyed or damaged ground infrastructure, mostly roads, bridges, and railway networks. In the days following such a disaster, relief efforts hinge on air transport capacity, which only depends on a clear runway or landing sites for helicopters. First responders, who focus on saving lives, are primarily aviation units of the armed forces or law enforcement.

Hurricane Sandy and the Transport Specialist: post factum impressions

Virginia Tanase's picture

Almost two weeks ago, when Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States, the importance of sustainable transport--which is the field I work in--really came home to me.  I was in New York for a UN Working Group meeting on transport’s contribution to sustainable development—one of the priorities for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s second term.