Plan for weather resilient future
Climate has always determined building and infrastructure standards. The regularity of the seasons permitted authorities to determine standards and plan for periods of drought and excess.
That is why infrastructure is designed to cope with floods and drought. Mass production as an economic model since the First Industrial Revolution contributed to economies of scale as the main aspect of determining affordability of basic services.
The catastrophes of the recent unprecedented drought and rainstorms bring into focus the capacity to deal with the consequences of extreme weather-related events, such as water cuts, soil subsidence, blocked drains, collapsed pipes and destroyed shelters.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, because of the anthroprocene where the Earth’s natural systems are altered primarily because of production and consumption patterns, irregular weather patterns is no longer a phenomenon, but a permanent feature.
With reduced water and electricity sales, partly due to affordability and careless management, traditional sources of municipal income are dissipating.
Recent catastrophes have shown that large-scale infrastructure projects is inefficient because citizens are not protected from the impacts of extreme weather.
Instead, prevailing infrastructure is an impediment to the sustainable provision of services through a combination of construction costs, as well as operations and maintenance costs, which also include inflexibility.
Add the electricity blackouts to the scenario and an unpleasant picture emerges both for municipal financial sustainability and for the provision of basic services.
Millenia before the common era, Mohenjo Daro and other Harrapan cities had piped water and sewerage systems.
In present-day Oman, water was piped across the desert via the falaj system.
The Romans, pre-colonial Americans and Africans did the same. Human ingenuity enabled societies to develop cities because they were able to provide water and later sanitation to residents.
Except for Damascus and Jericho, which are considered to be the only continuously inhabited cities, other cities have been abandoned mainly because of their inability to adapt to changing climates.
Water sources dried up and nature reclaimed its space.
Some cities were claimed by the sea as its levels changed.
The engineering principles applied millennia ago, are still used in planning and engineering today, albeit to much better standards.
The generation, and transmission of electricity has not changed in more than 150 years of which the Kusile and Medupi power stations are infamous examples.
As the current climate patterns continues, the impact will be experienced by everyone.
If nothing is done, then large parts of our cities might have to be abandoned due to increased risks of flooding or prolonged periods of drought.
Contemporary infrastructure models and standards often do not take in account the high costs of operations and maintenance, community health and environmental rehabilitation even though these are the highest budget items for municipalities.
Neither are the personal inconveniences and economic costs of large outages taken into account.
The model is also financially inefficient.
Non-income expenditure on water is water paid for by a municipality but lost due to evaporation and leaking pipes.
Electricity is lost when transmitted over the long distances from where it is generated.
The larger the distance between the source and the end user, the higher the losses.
Yet, it need not be that way. Many domestically developed technologies have set global standards in making individual buildings and settlements a lot more resilient to the weather and the economy.
“Embedded”, “off-grid”, “micro-grid” and “grid-tied” are terms that have come into everyday use because of the technologies which enable neighbourhoods and individual buildings to be less reliant on the large grids.
A social, environmental and economic argument can be made that these systems are a lot more cost-effective and significantly more resilient to changing climates.
With these systems, some areas might be out of some service for some time, but not at the scale as recent experience has shown.
Similarly, building technologies have evolved to make the construction of resilient buildings more cost-effective and weather efficient; and with economies of scale, costs will reduce over time.
Planning for the urban future, enables municipalities to reset building standards and those of basic services.
New standards for spatial layouts, buildings, land use, stormwater management, sewage treatment, energy supply and disaster management also open new areas of economic opportunity.
Complex urban systems require complex infrastructure because large-scale infrastructure – such as freeways, heavy electricity for large industries and high-on-demand availability of water – are economic essentials.
However, for the majority of users, such as domestic and small-scale businesses, viable alternatives already exist.
The argument to act on the potential of the available alternatives has been well made in every international agreement the government has signed up to – from the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, AU 2063 and the New Urban Agenda.
It is also covered in government industrial policy documents, the National Development Plan and municipal integrated development plans.
Human ingenuity is finding ways to overcome the cognitive dissonance preventing us from doing what we know needs to be done.
● Ashraf Adam is the CEO of the Mandela Bay Development Agency.