How to Deliver the Disaster-Resilient Infrastructure that Asia Needs

Disaster resilient infrastructure will create economic benefits while decreasing suffering. Photo: ADB
Disaster resilient infrastructure will create economic benefits while decreasing suffering. Photo: ADB

By Steven Goldfinch

Governments in Asia and the Pacific should consider the direct and indirect benefits of resilient infrastructure, including losses avoided and economic and development benefits even when disaster doesn’t strike.

Droughts, storms, heatwaves, floods, and other impacts are becoming increasingly complex and more difficult to manage. If left unchecked, they will erode development progress made in recent decades and create a future that is increasingly uncertain and deeply unequal.

 In urban areas, exposure to climate and geophysical hazards, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, are already widespread across Asia and the Pacific. Between 2004 and 2020, developing countries in Asia incurred losses of over $500 billion from disasters, affecting 2.1 billion people. The World Meteorological Organization reported in 2021 that the number of weather-related disasters has increased by a factor of five over a 50-year period (1970-2019), driven by climate change, more extreme weather, and improved reporting.

Potential losses due to earthquakes also rise as the concentration of economic activity increases in exposed areas.

Against the backdrop of increasing risk is a recognition that Asia and the Pacific needs to invest $26 trillion from 2016 to 2030, in infrastructure, or $1.7 trillion a year, to maintain its growth momentum, eradicate poverty, and respond to climate change. Of total climate-adjusted investment needs over 2016–2030, $14.7 trillion will be for power and $8.4 trillion for transport, according to an assessment by ADB.

Governments need to act now to invest in risk-informed infrastructure. Bearing in mind that infrastructure can have a long lifespan,  investments in resilient infrastructure will be critical in shaping economic and environmental sustainability. There is growing evidence that low-carbon and resilient investments can deliver stronger economic returns than traditional spending alternatives. But how, where, and when these investments are made will be a determining factor in the region’s resilience to disaster and climate risk.

For Asia and the Pacific to achieve its sustainable development aspirations, it’s time to re-think the current approach to infrastructure.

Examining these three areas will help governments reduce disaster risk to infrastructure while reducing potential risk from infrastructure downstream, leading to more resilient services:

Understand and account for the benefits of resilience more fully. This means moving beyond a narrow consideration of disaster risk in planning and prioritization of infrastructure investments at the asset level to consider systems’ or users’ resilience. There is a need to assess the benefits of the investment not only in terms of the potential to reduce disaster losses, but also consider enhanced economic development, and wider co-benefits including in social development.

Improve risk information. There is a clear gap between the ‘global’ case for resilient infrastructure and the realities at the local level.  Insufficient data and a limited understanding of current and future risk can result in an under-investment in resilience, where higher capital or operational costs are perceived to exceed intangible, long-term, and uncertain benefits of infrastructure that is resilient to disasters. Enhanced decision making requires more spatially granular information on risk, accounting for future demographic, economic and climate scenarios, and expressed in relevant socio-economic terms.

Enhance coordination across decision makers. Recognizing the interconnected nature of infrastructure systems across spatial, sectoral, economic and societal areas can improve outcomes. Early coordination between sectors, owners and operators provides an opportunity to create a shared vision for resilience objectives and build a common understanding of relevant hazards and their impacts. Investment decisions taken at a cross-sectoral level can give a better consideration to system-wide costs and benefits, including those which cross spatial and sectoral boundaries.

There is a need to advance practical and risk-informed solutions to strengthen resilience across the infrastructure cycle from planning and designing, to financing, operation and maintenance, and scalability. 

Integrating disaster and climate resilience into infrastructure planning enables decision makers to take a broader view of how disaster risk and climate change will affect future infrastructure needs. They can then design investments that address interconnections and increase resilience in a way that cannot be achieved by looking at projects in isolation.

The starting point is to take a new approach to assessing infrastructure investments, including critically looking at traditional cost-benefit analysis and related models to take account more fully of the risks and benefits of resilience. 

 For Asia and the Pacific to achieve its sustainable development aspirations, it’s time to re-think the current approach to infrastructure.

This requires greater consideration of the direct and indirect benefits of resilient infrastructure in planning and investment decisions, factoring in avoided losses after a disaster, as well as economic and the development co-benefits that occur in the absence of a disaster.