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Thank goodness, we had an extra bridge in stock!

Malaika Becoulet's picture
Credit: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory
On October 4, 2016, category 4 Hurricane Matthew struck the southern part of Haiti. Strong winds and rain triggered heavy flooding and landslides that resulted in 500 fatalities, along with widespread infrastructure damage and economic loss. The hurricane caused the collapse of the Ladigue Bridge, a vital asset connecting the southern peninsula of Haiti to the capital city and the rest of the country. The collapse left 1.4 million people completely isolated, making it extremely hard to deliver the aid and humanitarian assistance they needed. Overall damage and losses were equivalent to 32% of GDP, with transport accounting for almost a fifth of the total.
Haiti is among the countries that are most vulnerable to natural disasters including hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes—the result of a combination of factors that include high exposure to natural hazards, vulnerable infrastructure, environmental degradation, institutional fragility, and a lack of adequate investment in resilience. In Haiti, 80% of people and goods are transported by road. First aid and humanitarian resources, often concentrated in Port-au-Prince, need to transit through congested and sometimes inaccessible roads to reach affected areas. In that context, strengthening and building resilient infrastructure is key.
Since 2008, the World Bank has supported the reconstruction of 15 major bridges and stabilized 300 kilometers of roads to enhance the resilience of Haiti’s transport network. One of the most significant innovations that came out of this effort was the adoption of standardized emergency bridges that can be assembled within 2- 3 months from pre-designed and interchangeable components. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, a temporary bridge that had been purchased under a previous World Bank project in the event of a natural disaster was mobilized to restore access to the isolated southern peninsula while a permanent replacement bridge was being built. Thanks to that approach, the government was able to reestablish access in less than 2 months, as opposed to the 12 months it took to reconstruct the permanent Ladigue bridge.
With hurricane season beginning in the Caribbean this week, here are some lessons we learned from Hurricane Matthew:
  1. Prioritization and sequencing: Reducing the vulnerability of the road network requires a proactive approach to climate change adaptation, a proper system for maintaining and taking stock of infrastructure, and a focus on preparedness (e.g. emergency bridge stocks, dragging and cleaning before hurricane seasons, etc.), with special attention to critical links such as bridges or coastal roads. This must be accompanied by efforts to strengthen Haiti’s capacity in investment planning, institutional coordination, risk assessment, crisis management, and reconstruction strategies. In a context of limited resources, spot improvements targeting the most critical and vulnerable parts of the network such as bridges and riverbank protection (e.g. abutments protection; slope stabilization, retaining wall, gabions) can help protect key assets in a cost-effective way.

  2. Good design and standardization can help reduce vulnerability. As the example of the Ladigue bridge demonstrates, bridges are often the weakest link in the transport network. When disaster strikes, damage to a bridge can prevent access to an entire region and disrupt humanitarian assistance. In vulnerable and disaster-prone areas, using standardized approaches to designing and building bridges can be an effective way of avoiding this scenario and reestablishing connectivity quickly. 

  3. Proper maintenance may be the most important investment governments can make for infrastructure resilience. Climate-smart design and construction are only the first step in enhancing the resilience of transport infrastructure; once the ribbon has been cut, ensuring proper maintenance, rigorous asset management, and taking care of any complementary works that may be necessary are equally important. Regular maintenance and improvements of culverts and drainage structures, as well as slope protection works are needed to ensure bridges are functional. This critical component can be the most challenging in vulnerable settings. Currently, the government’s Road Maintenance Fund covers only 20 percent of the necessary funding, which exacerbates the transport network’s vulnerability to climatic hazards. To address this issue, the government, in partnership with the World Bank, has developed a tailored approach to transport infrastructure where maintenance and upgrading investments come together.
Building on these lessons, the World Bank and the government of Haiti are preparing to launch a new project focusing on asset management and resilient mobility for rural communities. The Project includes support for the development of a National Bridge Management Program with an updated national bridge inventory and monitoring system expected to be operational by 2023.