Sustainable development depends on high-quality infrastructure

Private investment is vital in projects to prevent natural disasters ruining societies

Residents wade through flooded streets after Super Typhoon Mangkhut in Calumpit, Bulacan, on September 17th, 2018: Construction  must be proactive, not reactive. Photograph: Noel Celis

Residents wade through flooded streets after Super Typhoon Mangkhut in Calumpit, Bulacan, on September 17th, 2018: Construction must be proactive, not reactive. Photograph: Noel Celis

 

In 2018, Typhoon Mangkhut battered the Philippines, triggering dozens of landslides and extensive flooding before it then slammed into Hong Kong, causing millions of dollars in damages. A series of earthquakes and tsunamis in Indonesia claimed thousands of lives and submerged entire villages, while wildfires raged across California.

That year was not unique. Over the past two decades or so, the world has seen a severe increase in climate-related events each year. Even accounting for better reporting, this number dwarfs the average of events per year, in the preceding 20 years.

Aside from the lives that have been lost, the broader impact on communities and nations is devastating. In terms of infrastructure alone, each effort to rebuild has disrupted services and industry, impacting both the economy and the environment.

Over the past two decades, countries hit by climate-related disasters reported more than $2.2 billion in direct economic losses . But when we look at the response to natural disasters, we continue to see reactiveness. Time and again, there is a rush to fix damage, with only short-term goals in mind – restoring services, reconstructing fallen buildings as soon as possible and so on.

Restoring services

The importance of restoring services to communities quickly after a disaster cannot be discounted. But this approach fails to think about how we could, and should, be planning and rebuilding for the long term, and include better preventative measures. It also misses an opportunity to ensure that infrastructure is appropriate and accessible to all its potential users, with their range of needs considered. The message is clear: we must focus on solutions.

The importance of restoring services to communities quickly after a disaster cannot be discounted. But we should be planning and rebuilding for the long term

Instead of school buildings, we should be talking about how we can create spaces where children can learn and teachers teach. Instead of roads, we should be talking about how we can connect people to where they are going. Instead of power grids, we should be talking about how we can give people access to light and energy so that they can work, earn an income and live a full and meaningful life. We need to think prevention and lifetime costs, and adopt long-term, resilient and sustainable solutions.

If we hope to address the world’s burgeoning infrastructure needs, then we must adopt a proactive, rather than reactive, approach. This is easier said than done. Estimates suggest more than $90 trillion in infrastructure investment is needed by 2040, yet limited public budgets create a multitrillion-dollar shortfall. As it currently stands, it is quite clear the way we finance infrastructure is not adequate. The infrastructure needs will require financing from the private sector. Quite simply, sustainable development depends on the private sector offering job opportunities.

Climate change

We must make the right investment choices and understand that we cannot backtrack and correct mistakes. There is simply too much at stake.

Last year, our research with the University of Oxford found further evidence that 92 per cent of the sustainable development goals targets can only be achieved with high-quality infrastructure. We urgently need infrastructure that is sustainable socially, economically and environmentally, and resilient to the impacts of climate change. And that means that we must help develop and apply quality standards that address the long-term needs of people and communities as part of national development visions.

We must help develop and apply quality standards that address long-term needs of people and communities as part of national development visions

The challenges we face are unprecedented and our sustainable development goals are highly ambitious. We only have a decade left to achieve it all. The time to change how we approach infrastructure development has come. And we must get started today.

Grete Faremo is under-secretary-general and executive director of Unops, the United Nations infrastructure specialists. She formerly led four ministries in the Norwegian government. She is speaking at the European Development Days conference in Brussels this week

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