By Quinton de Villiers
Motorists have to again navigate large potholes in highly-congested urban centres in Gauteng, following an episode of flash floods that also wreaked havoc in our cities by bringing traffic to a standstill for days on end.
While the recent storms have exposed the shortfall in maintenance of this important economic infrastructure, they have once more also highlighted the various roads agencies’ under preparedness for severe weather events as a result of climate change.
The potential future effects of climate change include an increase in floods, windstorms and droughts. These severe weather events have increased by 600% since the 1950s, and cost the global economy US$170-billion in 2016, alone. The price tag associated with the aftermath of these disasters are said to be five times more than in the 1980s and significantly higher than the US$103-billion worth of losses experienced in 2015.
African decision-makers, including roads authorities, are now forced to grapple with an additional complexity in the strategic planning of their infrastructure. They have to try to understand the unknown to build more robust roads of the future that are able to withstand these climate shocks.
Being largely under-developed, these countries also have the ideal opportunity to design resilient infrastructure right from the outset, as opposed to those countries in the industrialised world where existing developments would have to be retrofitted. This is a more complex undertaking that could be impractical in some instances, or limit their flexibility to handle shocks.
Bear in mind that, in the past, roads were designed for rare climate shocks of a restricted magnitude. They certainly did not plan for infrastructure that would be subjected to more frequent and extreme events within their standard design life.
The average age of roads infrastructure and the lack of maintenance in developing economies, including South Africa, increase levels of risk.
For example, as much as 48% of the Johannesburg Roads Authority’s system was already classified as being in “poor” or “very poor” condition before the flash floods. Repair costs before the flooding stood at a staggering R1,38-billion per year over the next decade, with up to 48% of the local network already classified as being in “poor” or “very poor” condition.
The extent of the recent damage is sure to add to the road authority’s burden, considering that just more than 20% of its road infrastructure – or about 2 500 km – had already failed structurally before the storm. Worryingly, under 30% – about 3 000 km – required resurfacing, and this is blatantly evident by the many potholes that road users now have to navigate in-and-around Johannesburg, Midrand and Tshwane.
The level of preparedness of the national routes, the main economic arteries of the country, is also questionable, based on recent events, as well the earlier flash floods in 2016 when six people lost their lives on the N3.
A blockage at one of the culverts resulted in water overtopping the embankments and spilling onto the highway, a heavily-trafficked and strategic corridor that connects Gauteng to the Port of Durban. These culverts are partitioned off by vagrants and then used as rooms, and the roads authority struggles to keep them clear.
Several people were also injured and many vehicles swept away that year – a much earlier signal that we lacked the means of responding to severe weather phenomena.
Hopefully, we have now learnt from this experience to “build back better”, while also ensuring a swifter response rate to these incidences.
Among others, this entails developing models that are able to better predict the impacts of climate change events on our road networks.
The collection of quality data is also essential to feed and calibrate these models to assist in improved decision making for uncertainty. Bear in mind the enormous complexity of understanding the impacts of climate change, a developing and imperfect science that depends upon reliable information and sound record keeping.
It is clear that more will need to be done to prevent South Africa’s cities from being locked into unsustainable development pathways and, therefore, exposed to increasingly intense and frequent urban shocks and stresses.
Quinton de Villiers is the founder and managing director of Bridgewater Logistics with a long and impressive track-record in African logistics and security. Follow Quinton at #InTheFastLane for more insights and expert commentary on African transport and logistics.