Devastating natural disasters show the need for resilient, sustainable and inclusive infrastructure

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Nick O’Regan, Director of Implementation Practices and Standards, UNOPS

  • The eruption of the La Soufrière volcano is touching every aspect of life on St Vincent and Gerardines, impacting food security, marine ecosystems and the ecotourism sector.
  • The eruptions on St Vincent are only the latest example of the damage such events can inflict on infrastructure that is not built to be resilient.
  • To create the resilient, sustainable, inclusive infrastructure these islands need, requires a shift in how we think about infrastructure, and then how we put that thinking into action.

The eruption of the La Soufrière volcano after lying dormant for 40 years has plunged the Caribbean nation of St Vincent and Gerardines into unimaginable levels of devastation and suffering.

Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes. Schools and businesses have been closed. Entire villages are covered in grey ash, where once there was only lush Caribbean green. Clouds of ash have reached even neighbouring islands such as Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada and Saint Lucia.

Normally, a story like this would have touched the hearts of many as images of a towering and smoking La Soufrière were beamed and printed across the world. But with the COVID-19 pandemic still saturating news reports, this is but another tragedy upon an already devastating situation.

Affecting every aspect of life

The impact of the volcanic eruptions touches every aspect of life: farmers have lost their crops and livestock, which impacts food security not just in St Vincent, but also neighbouring islands. The eruptions have affected marine ecosystems and an already hard-hit ecotourism sector, further damaging livelihoods.

The air quality and ash removal remain huge concerns. With the ash polluting the water resources, water shortages are severe. All of this during the COVID-19 pandemic, when access to clean water is a matter of life and death.

And the disaster could not have come at a more difficult time for St Vincent, struggling with COVID-19 after a severe dengue fever outbreak, in the midst of a dry season and ahead of a hurricane season.

The devastation is heart-breaking. The extent of the damage to the country’s infrastructure requires massive and urgent response and recovery efforts, estimated to cost about half of the country’s GDP.

Sadly, the infrastructure around us is often not prepared to withstand such shocks, from global pandemics to natural hazards, and the volcanic eruptions in St Vincent are only the latest example of the damage such events can inflict on infrastructure that is not built to be resilient – and therefore on human development. It’s sadly all too familiar.

In September 2017, Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, left a trail of destruction across the Caribbean, displacing over 1.7 million people, including in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Antigua and Barbuda. On the island of Barbuda, 90% of all infrastructure was destroyed, leaving approximately 50% of the population homeless. On the island of Saint Martin, the hurricane left two-thirds of homes uninhabitable, with no electricity, gas or drinking water.

Indeed, the climate crisis poses an existential threat to Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like St Vincent. With nearly one-third of their population living less than five metres above sea level, the climate crisis is an undeniable fact of an uncertain future for people in these states.

Infrastructure is key to climate mitigation and adaptation efforts across the world. For states like St Vincent, as the La Soufrière eruptions have shown, infrastructure will define the battle for survival.

How to build resilience

So what can we do? How can we avert the disasters to come? How can we create the resilient, sustainable and inclusive infrastructure that these islands need?

The answer requires a shift in how we think about infrastructure, and then how we turn that thinking into action. To start with, alongside mapping disaster risks, identifying critical assets and upholding international best practices, we must consider how infrastructure systems, such as transport, housing or sanitation, depend on each other, and we need to carefully consider their relationship with the natural environment. We need planning that carefully considers local contexts, needs and vulnerabilities.

UNOPS, the UN’s infrastructure and procurement specialists, supports countries in strengthening national long-term infrastructure planning. In neighbouring Saint Lucia, for example, UNOPS and the University of Oxford have been working together with the government to develop an approach to national infrastructure planning that is based on data and evidence. This new model helps the country respond to both national and international development priorities.

Infrastructure projects are costly and long-lasting. Resources are limited and needs are immense. The infrastructure we invest in today needs to be fit for the needs of present and future generations – and we can no longer afford to get it wrong.

What is the World Economic Forum doing on infrastructure?

Infrastructure is one of the least technologically transformed sectors in the entire economy, with crucial components like construction ranking second to last in digitization according to industry rankings. Technologically-enabled infrastructure has the potential to change the way we plan, design, finance, build and operate our infrastructure systems and, more importantly, help achieve broader goals around sustainability, social cohesion and inclusive economic growth.

The World Economic Forum’s Infrastructure 4.0 initiative, supported by the Global Infrastructure Hub, is working to improve the adoption of emerging infrastructure technologies across asset and system lifecycles.

By creating recommendations for decision-makers and providing best-practice case study examples to the Global Infrastructure Hub’s G20 Infratech Use Case library, this initiative aims to refocus the infrastructure development conversation around how infrastructure as a tool to provide better outcomes in people’s lives and technology’s role in enabling this people-first future.

The La Soufrière eruptions have reminded us how violent and unpredictable our planet can be. It has also shown us just how fragile our civilisations around the world are. We will likely never be able to stop disasters like this from happening again, but once the ash has settled and the volcano’s inferno simmers enough to allow Vincentians to return home, we will have the chance to rebuild. If we don’t plan this now, the apocalyptic scenes we witnessed in St Vincent will be a recurring nightmare.

We must set the foundations for the sustainable, resilient and inclusive infrastructure that will ensure islanders are better protected, now and for generations to come.

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