How to build climate change resilience into rural infrastructure planning?

Authors: Amber Davidson, Michael Twycross
aerial view of a green field

At a glance

Climate and weather extremes are rising, with disruption and financial losses from related disasters projected to escalate. We must safeguard our existing and new infrastructure to claw back on spiralling disaster recovery spending. More than 40% of the world's population is particularly vulnerable to weather-related events because of where they live*. That is around 3.4 billion people residing in rural communities where the need to embed climate resilience into the design and planning of infrastructure projects is the greatest.

Climate and weather extremes are rising, with disruption and financial losses from related disasters projected to escalate. We must safeguard our existing and new infrastructure to claw back on spiralling disaster recovery spending.

Social infrastructure spend in regional areas is low and building back from climate disaster disproportionately affects the most socio-economically disadvantaged communities. The 2020 Australian bushfires hit people in regional communities the hardest. A road closure from extreme flooding in western Canada resulted in food and medical supply shortages for a rural town. Twelve months on since major flooding, Lismore in regional New South Wales is still rebuilding.

It is the same story the world over: rural living sits on the battlegrounds of climate change with extreme heat, fires and floods threatening the health, safety and livelihoods of individuals and communities.

Managing sustainability and resilience across planning and infrastructure assets is complicated. More so today as governments attempt to stimulate their economies through infrastructure projects. All levels of government are continuously reacting to immediate emergencies which makes it more challenging to address longer term needs for more sustainable infrastructure solutions. How can government be more proactive and embed resilience into future infrastructure planning that allows regional areas to thrive?

Overcome rural infrastructure funding challenges by applying a forward-thinking lens. 

Collectively, we need to work on closing the significant gap that exists between projected resilient infrastructure needs and current funding trends. Mission-critical infrastructure in regional areas is often in need of repairs, upgrades, or replacement even before being faced with a crisis.

Rebuilding efforts are still reactive and rely heavily on costly disaster recovery funding programs. In Australia, a staggering $17 billion was spent on disaster recovery in 2019 and 2020, with annual economic costs forecast** to more than double by 2050 to $39.3 billion. Often the premise is like-for-like replacement, rather than integrating necessary upgrades to better climate-proof the asset.

Mitigation efforts and infrastructure assessments must provide clear paths forward and speak to the broader ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) considerations. Exploring ways of future-proofing infrastructure will play a vital role in helping rural communities grow and flourish.

When building back infrastructure that is vulnerable to future climate impact, structuring the discussion to include the role of new technologies or alternative power sources influences more resilient outcomes. For example, a new sewerage treatment plant may be needed to replace the one being adversely impacted by rising sea levels. This provides an opportunity to evolve the asset from its current state to a physical structure that converts waste to energy for power generation.

Similarly, rural communities hit hard by bushfires called for a rethink on power transmission to improve resilience. Building back overhead electricity lines that were consistently damaged during fire events or require high maintenance is time-consuming and costly. Burying lines underground or drawing on a more distributed network of local renewable energy sources makes more sense. Having conversations during the initial concept and design stages means identifying the best pathway forward and being able to build it across the implementation. Like-for-like replacement is not always the best course of action.

Data-informed decision-making to adapt and respond more sustainably. 

Provisioning new and updated social infrastructure in regional communities is not just about needing more, but better. It is about future-proofing new investments and finding ways to scale and sequence appropriately.

While there is no one size fits all approach, the methodology and blend of strategies, such as adaptive investment pathways, creates a framework for understanding where to focus resources and efforts. It is critical to address, manage and mitigate the impact of multi-layered challenges to meet policy and individual community needs. Tapping into local knowledge and stakeholder engagement are also essential to drive regional infrastructure delivery.

Recent experience working with a client from the health industry in the Asia Pacific, demonstrates the benefit of having a local presence to clearly understand project drivers and desired outcomes, combined with a strong quantitative evidence base. Adopting the investment pathway method, the solution wasn’t about upgrading or rebuilding the same piece of infrastructure but developing a completely different asset that ultimately delivers better outcomes for the community. Governments can more effectively weigh up decisions such as costs, short/long term objectives, risk, environmental impact and community acceptance.

Looking ahead, ongoing access to relevant, high-quality data and information, and the ability to apply these insights appropriately will inform planning and enable more reliability and potentially longer asset life and infrastructure protection.

Pivoting the focus and prioritising sustainable options will help embed resiliency today and address long-term vulnerabilities. Coupled with an interconnected and coordinated response between governments, infrastructure owners, the private sector, and investors, we can be more proactive and take the necessary steps to help our regional communities prosper.

Summary for Policymakers

2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan