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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.

In that context, the World Bank is working to help governments better address the challenges of climate change in the transport sector worldwide as extreme weather events add to the burden of transport authorities… many of which manage already congested networks, and cannot afford to see critical assets like tunnels or major roads get disrupted by weather extremes. In the specific case of São Paulo, the World Bank has been playing a key role in making climate resilience an integral part the São Paulo Sustainable Transport project. As such, special attention has been paid to the Anchieta-Imigrantes highways (a strategic portion of the local road network that connects São Paulo to the coastal city of Santos) with a view to protecting the State’s transport infrastructure, avoiding as much as possible system interruptions from climactic events which severely hamper the economy, and ensuring long-lasting development.  
Based on this experience the World Bank, together with the Geologic Institute and with the support of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), prepared this short publication to explore options to make transport infrastructure more climate resilient. Among possible solutions, the project is financing risk mapping activities, improved weather monitoring, studies on economic impacts of extreme events, among others, that combined would help State authorities (in specific the State Department of Transport with support from the Geological Institute and the Civil Defense) to create contingency plans in order to reduce immediate and long term impacts on passenger and freight transport and therefore improve the resilience of roads and the economy dependable on it.
Hence, in light of the increasing frequency of extreme events and its human impacts and economic losses, it is paramount to incorporate resilience practices into the transport sector through improved asset management and maintenance processes. For instance, in February 2013, the State of São Paulo experienced intense rainfall, which resulted in massive landslides along the the Anchieta-Imigrantes highways. One person died, and the Imigrantes highway remained closed for several hours. Considering that an estimated 25% of Brazil’s economic output transits through Anchieta-Imigrantes highways, and that the national economy is highly dependent on efficient road connections between São Paulo and Santos, the highway closure also caused considerable economic loss to the country. These events demonstrated once again the seminal importance of factoring climate and disaster risk into transport projects. Against this backdrop, it might be appropriate to ask: are the Anchieta-Imigrantes highways some sort of Achilles heel of the Giant Brazil?