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‘Increase investments to address infra deficit, achieve sustainable development’

Oct 15, 2023 05:48 PM IST

CDRI has made a strong case for enhanced investments in systems and structures that can withstand natural hazards and climate change-induced disasters

The Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) — a body of 31 countries and eight international institutions that promotes disaster-resilient infrastructure — released its biennial report on October 4, making a strong case for enhanced investments in systems and structures that can withstand natural hazards and climate change-induced disasters.

Police, SDRF, ITBP, and army personal during rescue operations in Shimla on August 14. (Deepak Sansta/HT Photo) PREMIUM
Police, SDRF, ITBP, and army personal during rescue operations in Shimla on August 14. (Deepak Sansta/HT Photo)

For India, the report’s context couldn’t have been more explicit. The flash floods in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and, most recently, the glacial lake outburst flood in Sikkim, the sinking of Joshimath, the landslide in Raigarh, deluges in multiple cities, and intense heatwaves this year were all a wake-up call that we need to safeguard against the unpredictability of these extremities most urgently.

The CDRI report, titled Global Infrastructure Resilience: Capturing the Resilience Dividend, has measured the potential loss and damage in countries worldwide and suggested new approaches to help create more adaptive, cost-effective, sustainable and inclusive infrastructure. It has also launched the (soon to be made public) Global Infrastructure Risk Model and Resilience Index to estimate risks in such assets. In the works is an urban programme focused on building resilience against flooding and extreme heat.

To understand the nuances of the problems and solutions, Shivani Singh spoke with CDRI director general Amit Prothi. Edited excerpts:

What are the key takeaways from CDRI’s latest report?

With the global average annual loss in infrastructure sectors and buildings being over $700 billion, putting almost 14% of 2021-2022 GDP growth at risk, the report stresses the need to increase investments to address the infrastructure deficit and achieve sustainable development goals. More so in the low and middle-income countries that are more vulnerable. They have a high relative risk of average annual losses of 0.31-0.41%, compared to just 0.14 % in high-income countries. These losses can increase by 33% by 2100.

To strengthen resilience, there is a need to invest $2.84-2.9 trillion in these countries by 2050. Also, the most crucial aspect highlighted in the report is the resilience dividend, a comprehensive set of advantages gained from investing in infrastructure that can withstand the impacts of climate change and disasters.

Are urban areas – heavily built up and densely populated — more vulnerable?

The focus of the report is on eight kinds of infrastructures at the national scale (it measures financial risk for each country in sectors such as power, telecommunication, roads, transport, water and wastewater, ports and airports, oil and gas, health, and education and for hazards such as earthquake, tsunamis, landslides, floods, cyclones, storm surge and droughts). The report says very little about urban vulnerability. But we know that vulnerabilities are higher in cities in rapidly growing countries, where capacity is not to the extent it needs to be. Indian cities, too, are growing rapidly, and the capacity to manage that growth is getting exacerbated by climate change. But again, this is not necessarily just the Indian city phenomenon.

To manage that growth, you need information and people who understand how to translate that information into good policies and implement them. Climate change is bringing uncertainties. We can’t just look at historical patterns and say this is how the future will look. So, decision-makers in cities are dealing with a lot of uncertainty worldwide.

How do you factor in these uncertainties in infrastructure planning? For example, roads and other infrastructure built close to the rivers are designed on a 50- or 100-year flood return period, even as flooding becomes more frequent. Don’t these parameters need to change?

What needs to be done is to understand these risks again and more regularly. There is improvement in tools of understanding of risks on the technology side. So, these standards can improve…

The thresholds, such as the 50-year return period, are all a probability; it is not that the flood comes once in 50 years. It could happen two years in a row. That probability should translate into what kind of infrastructure you can build because, at the end of the day, it will cost a lot if you start strengthening everything to the extreme.

There are no-regret investments by which you can bring some flexibility in (infrastructure) design. Singapore’s flood management system had concrete drains. Today, they’ve removed a concrete drain in a certain segment and created a public park. This public park doesn’t have boundaries like a concrete channel. The water can ebb and flow depending on what space it needs and how much water is falling. If it’s a 50-year flood (return period), a part of the park gets flooded. If it is more, a larger part gets flooded. So, they didn’t design a flood corridor that worked only for 30 or 50 days a year. They designed a park and identified certain boundaries to say if there’s a flood, there’ll be a warning: don’t go to those areas. So, they have used an alternate way and addressed the issue by managing information.

The report says much of the investment goes into mitigation, which works on longer time frames and not so much in adaptation. But to address climate-induced vulnerabilities, cities must adapt fast, which involves retrofitting the existing infrastructure.

So again, this is not CDRI’s position because we haven’t designed an urban programme yet. But speaking generically, as part of mitigation efforts in cities, the focus is more on bus rapid systems, metro systems, electric vehicles, energy efficiency in buildings, and changing the electricity supply.

At the same time, we’re also building infrastructure to address the challenges such as flooding, for which we are investing in stormwater drainage. We are trying to understand how houses could be better equipped for extreme heat. Urban greening can help in managing extreme heat and for water management. A lot of this work is already on. It needs to be scaled up, particularly on the adaptation side, because mitigation takes longer. We are already hitting thresholds of 1.5-2 degrees Celsius. Adaptation means how we address those challenges. Some of it relates to just the patterns of urban development.

Because of the urban heat island effect, some cities may be 4-6 degrees hotter than others. Research shows that specific populations are more vulnerable to heat than others. We must understand which locations and populations are more vulnerable and devise strategies to address those vulnerabilities.

Amit Prothi, director general, Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI)(HT Photo)
Amit Prothi, director general, Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI)(HT Photo)

What could be the cost-effective upgrades for adaption?

For extreme heat, cool roofs (the surface that reflects heat and keeps the inside temperature down) on top of buildings and greening on top of terraces, which absorb the heat, are being explored worldwide. We still need many more well-trained professionals who can translate the understanding of climate risks into adaptation-related infrastructure.

CDRI is focusing very strongly on capacity building — trying to build partnerships between universities to address these emerging risks and uncertainties related to climate changes in the curriculum the next generation is learning.

By this year’s end, we will launch an urban programme, looking at extreme heat and urban flooding. With the help of the United States and The Netherlands governments, we are starting to identify the opportunity areas for us to intervene. Our programme will be focused on providing technical assistance and capacity building.

How should we finance disaster-resilient infrastructure?

We are building a lot, so it’s not that we’re not investing in infrastructure. The investments that are already programmed, planned and ongoing should incorporate risk information so that it doesn’t get affected by extreme heat, cyclones, or a flood because with that the investment loses value over time. For example, if a budget is in place to take a flood mitigation measure, then it is about making the right choices. Is that budget going to be used for a certain technology, such as concrete drains? Or can that same budget be used for a different technology, which may be cheaper and give you more coverage?

There’s also an argument for nature-based solutions. To address floods, building concrete drains is one kind of solution. Providing wetlands to store water is another kind of solution. Planting trees for green areas, which reduce water flow, is another part of the solution. So, are we thinking about solutions that can provide multiple benefits and maximise the funds that we have?

How should we raise funds for adaptation?

A lot of private capital is coming into the mitigation side, such as green energy that was not there 20 years ago. On the adaptation side, I think the private investors are still trying to understand how to finance something for risk reduction. We are trying to think of ways to create project pipelines, which may be a combination of public-private finance where the public sector de-risks investments or makes it attractive for the private sector. This work is new globally.

In the Caribbean islands, for instance, there is insurance — a form of risk pooling. Not all the islands will get hit simultaneously by a cyclone. So, in a way, they are pooling their risk – they pay a premium and may not get hit this year, but they might three years later. So, it’s sharing (the risk) with other countries.

Again, if cyclones impact power lines, you lose service. So, can you monetise the investment in strengthening the power infrastructure ahead of time? It’s about calculating the disrupted service, monetising it and then putting it in investments ahead of time so that you’re investing in strengthening the infrastructure.

The report says new infrastructure projects can potentially increase or reduce systemic risks such as climate change and biodiversity loss. How do we ensure the created infrastructure doesn’t harm natural ecosystems?

First, we need information to know what the risks are. Second, the planners must have the capacity to recognise if they are making a certain decision with the awareness of all the potential systemic risks that exist.

Also, when designing infrastructure, the expertise to understand how that infrastructure will perform across multiple domains is not easy and requires experience. For CDRI as a coalition, we pick up examples from around the globe and bring them to other parts of the world.

Examples from India on handling extreme heat could be valuable for European cities facing heat risks that they’ve never faced. In our traditional architecture, the chajjas (projection over doors and windows) and the jaalis (lattice) are getting noticed around the world. At the Red Fort, the architecture below the ground has a whole water system to help cool the building. According to climate change predictions, Athens will face extreme heat much faster than other European cities. I was working to address this issue in my previous position. The city has an aqueduct built by the Romans that was functional till about the 1850s. That aqueduct still exists. The metropolitan government is looking to use this infrastructure designed nearly 2,000 years ago to cool places in Athens.

Reclaiming and restoring green spaces and water bodies lost to urbanisation is difficult. So, how do you explore nature-based infrastructure solutions?

Nature-based solutions have the most opportunities in urban areas. The parks in the city system provide heat island mitigation and water management benefits. The water bodies are getting taken over (by real estate), but this is also where communities have started engaging a lot. What is urbanisation? Urbanisation is changing land from pervious to impervious. So, you reduce the impervious surface by adding a layer of pervious surface, which could become productive for agriculture and address food security issues. There are a lot of examples around the world, and Rotterdam has done this brilliantly with roof gardening. You can also address extreme heat because you have a thermal layer on your rooftops. You can reduce water flow because the first couple of centimetres of water can be stored on the roof. This (could) become a private-sector engagement. If they help reduce flood risk, the government will have to put less money into the underground infrastructure. But it requires a shift in our visualisation of a city.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Shivani Singh leads the Delhi Metro team for Hindustan Times. A journalist for two decades, she writes about cities and urban concerns. She has reported extensively on issues of governance, administrative and social reforms, and education.

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