Climate change impact on infrastructure in Africa and Asia

Climate change poses a grave threat to infrastructure in Africa and Asia, but investments in response could offer significant opportunities for projects in the two continents.


The World Economic Forum didn’t mince its words when it said it January that extreme weather events are the most threatening global risks this year.


Many African and Asian countries were unusually vulnerable to extreme weather events even before climate change became mainstream, but global warming could trigger more frequent weather disasters, changes in rainfall patterns and rising sea levels as they are expected to bear the brunt of the shift.


The two continents are particularly exposed to extreme weather events--all of the ten most impacted countries between 1997-2016 are from there.


Extreme weather damages and disrupts transport infrastructure in numerous ways. Heavy rainfall and subsequent landslides, mudlsides or flooding may lead to road, rail and airport shutdowns. Extended warm weather would affect road surface deterioration due to melting bitumen and thermal expansion of bridges and rail tracks, as well as cause electronic equipment to overheat. Gales and high winds can damage costal infrastructure, disrupt traffic and lead to inundation.


Extreme climatic events are likely to become more frequent due to global warming, putting additional stress on key infrastructures with typically long life spans of multiple decades. It also dents one of the key aspects of infrastructure—its long life span—making it more vulnerable to climate variability.


The biggest risk is that infrastructure isn’t up to the task to handle extreme climate change-influenced weather events. 


Infrastructure, such as dams, embankments, bridges, ports, that was designed for the 20th Century climate and not the pumped-up one of today, increases the likelihood of life-threatening natural disasters.


In rural areas of many African and Asian low-income countries, roads are critical for the livelihoods of the inhabitants, both economically as well as providing access to healthcare and education. Climate change impacts roads in terms of maintenance, repairs and duration as a usable infrastructure.


Africa will pay a "higher price" over climate change because of the dramatic impacts, while the continent "doesn't contribute much" to global warming, said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres earlier this year.


According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in October, warming looks very likely to rise by 2 degrees Celsius in Africa. The IPCC base scenario projects a 4 degrees Celsius increase by the end of the century. Under the same IPCC scenario, warmer temperatures are projected to intensify existing precipitation patterns, with increases in rainfall in equatorial regions of up to 30% and decreases of 10%–20% in Africa’s far north and south.


Temperatures in Africa have risen, rainfall patterns changed, and warming will continue with large, but largely uncertain impacts, on rainfall, wrote the Hoover Institution in a January report.”Africa is often described as the continent most at risk to the negative effects of climate change.”


Africa’s limited existing infrastructure is already feeling the impact of climate change-influenced extreme events.


For example, the countries of Zimbabwe and Zambia risked an electricity outage three years ago when hydropower production from the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi almost ceased production when the water reservoir fell to 12% of capacity.


The impact has been significant in Asia too. Under the business-as-usual scenario, a 6 degrees Celsius temperature rise above pre-industrial levels is projected for the Asian landmass by the end of the century.


The Asian Development Bank (ADB) forecasts the continent needs to invest $1.5 trillion a year in infrastructure from 2016 until 2030 to keep pace with economic growth. The estimated need rises 16% to more than $1.7 trillion a year when climate adaptation and mitigation measures are included. ADB predicts mitigation costs could tally $200 billion annually, while adaptation costs are estimated at $41 billion a year, mostly for transport infrastructure.


Africa’s and Asia’s hunger for infrastructure projects, such as roads, bridges and rail links, to satisfy their economic growth potential highlights the opportunities for investors. In the past decade, economies in Africa and Asia have expanded more than the world average.


The majority of investments so far have come from national governments in the two regions and multilateral agencies. There is ample space for the private sector to expand, especially for more institutional investors keen to come in as they chase higher returns for their assets thanks to growing economies, fast-emerging middle class and massive infrastructure needs in the two geographical areas.


Climate change is expected to have important implications for the cost, design and location of Africa's and Asia’s infrastructure projects, with the challenge being making investment decisions suitable under a wide range of possible climate outcomes.


Climate change should be grasped as an opportunity to attract vast capital flows into infrastructure investments.


Infrastructure needs to be shored up fast to deal with a wilder weather future—be it wetter, hotter, windier or drier.