India’s Road to Resiliency: Why climate proofing India’s road network is vital to secure sustainable development

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Roads in Kerala,India destroyed by landslides following a flood in August 2018. Photo: Indranil Bose/World Bank Roads in Kerala,India destroyed by landslides following a flood in August 2018. Photo: Indranil Bose/World Bank

In August 2018, Kerala, a tropical and low-lying state in southern India was consumed by the worst monsoon floods in over a century. Torrents of rain loosened soil, rock and vegetation from the hilltops, igniting a slurry of landslides that swallowed entire villages, displacing more than a million people from their homes. The force of the water washed away hundreds of bridges and destroyed more than 10,000 km of Kerala’s roads, hampering relief efforts and cutting thousands of communities off from critical services and jobs.

The Kerala floods lay bare the vulnerability of India’s transportation infrastructure to extreme weather events in an increasingly warming world. Already one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, India’s economic losses from climate and natural disaster-related events have increased by 45 percent in the last two decades. The country’s road sector is particularly exposed. In Kerala, approximately 25 percent of the state’s highways and major district roads were damaged by flooding, landslides, earth slips and rock falls in 2018.

Resilient infrastructure is not just about the safe transfer of goods and services across roads, bridges or railways . It is about the people, the households and the communities that depend upon these systems as a lifeline to better health, education and secure livelihoods. While India has pursued a long-term strategic vision to shore up its climate resilience, the transport sector has faced challenges in strengthening resiliency to climate shocks. The World Bank South Asia Region Transport Team (SARTT) is working with the Government of India to create new pathways to climate-proof the country’s transport infrastructure, including its road network. That means planning for resilience, building roads with wider drainage channels for flood-prone regions like Kerala, stabilizing slopes with nature-based solutions when relevant, and redesigning roads to avoid landslide damage. It also means partnering with state and local officials to integrate long-term climate-smart and sustainable asset management practices into road reconstruction planning and design to protect from future climate shocks.

In Kerala, once the flood waters receded, the local government – with support through the Rebuild Kerala Development Program (RKDP) – set about rebuilding the state’s flood-ravaged road sector. Recognizing that a resilient transport network cannot be created in isolation, the partners set about creating a systems-wide approach incorporating disaster risk management, urban planning and climate-proofing. A 7,000 km core road network – critical for the movement of people and goods – was prioritized by Kerala’s Public Works Department (PWD), and a climate-informed GIS-based Road Maintenance Management system (RMMS) was established with a dedicated RMMS and climate cell created to plan and manage road maintenance in the state. The PWD began to reconstruct the flood-damaged roads and bridges in Kerala in a more sustainable and climate-resilient manner, as well as introduced a seven-year performance-based road maintenance contract model with provision for disaster response.

Thinking ahead, the PWD has tasked the Kerala Highway Research Institute (KHRI) – a designated ‘center of excellence’ for the road sector – to mainstream climate resilient planning and design concepts, tools and local resilient standards. Using geo-mapping technology, the KHRI will assess and screen Kerala’s entire road network for past and future climate risks. Vulnerable road network zones across the state will be mapped in terms of projected rainfall, flood or landslides and rated on multi-criteria climate risk rating based on hazard, vulnerability, and exposure of the assets and community. This data is expected to be updated on a regular basis and provided to the PWD’s road designers to apply enhanced design techniques and eco-friendly solutions. In time, a state-specific climate resilience manual will be developed to guide Kerala in designing roads that can withstand the ever-increasing climate impacts.

Damaged roads and infrastructure in the Pamba Region of Kerala following a series of deadly floods and landslides in August 2018
Damaged roads and infrastructure in the Pamba Region of Kerala, India following a series of deadly floods and landslides in August 2018. Photo: Indranil Bose, World Bank Consultant.

The approach used in Kerala offers a roadmap for institutionalizing the concept of resilience planning across India’s road sector. On the ground in India, new climate-resilient transportation designs for roads, highways, waterways and railways are taking shape. The $500 million Green National Highways Corridor Project (GNHCP) will mainstream resilient and green technology for national highways around the country. The GNHCP is constructing nearly 800 km of climate-resilient highways across four key states – Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh – by 2024. In Chennai, the vibrant capital city of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, an ongoing technical study will enhance urban transport resilience under the Chennai City Partnership (CCP).

Overall, there is an opportunity to scale up climate financing in India to fund new transportation projects that incorporate resiliency to climate shocks. Based on India’s National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) for FY 2020-2025, nearly 4,000 new transport development opportunities worth US$955 billion are projected. The World Bank’s new Climate Action Roadmap for South Asia will help India identify and prioritize action for building more sustainable, resilient transportation projects . India’s membership of the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), a global partnership to promote climate and disaster resilience of new and existing infrastructure systems, will also help mainstream climate considerations into transport infrastructure development. Efforts to create synergies and raise awareness are led by the SARTT through a series of targeted national level webinars focusing on  how to increase resiliency and transport planning through five key strategies – system planning, design and engineering, operation and maintenance, contingency planning and financial and institutional capacity.

Building climate-smart pathways require commitment and patience. Kerala’s move towards a systems resilience approach provides a model for other Indian states to embrace a more integrated climate-proof policy, planning and multi-dimensional approach that focuses on building institutional capacity, planning and engineering skills. It also will help promote economic development, enhance community and farmer access, reduce the life cycle cost of maintenance, and lower vehicle operating costs and travel times. As the work underway in Kerala illustrates, on the long road towards building climate-resilient transport across India, there are no shortcuts.


*This article benefitted from contributions by Indranil Bose.


Oceane Keou

Senior Transport Specialist

Vijetha Bezzam

Transport Specialist, South Asia Region, World Bank Group

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