Climate Change Threatens Billions of Dollars in Infrastructure Investment in Developing World


The effects of global warming infrastructure for energy, sanitation and agriculture reveal that current investment and development strategies will make poor nations poorer and accelerate species loss

Arlington, VA – While western Europe and North America ended their period of rapid infrastructure development decades ago, developing countries are now entering their own “golden era” of investment and construction.  While infrastructure for agriculture, cities, energy generation and navigation are expanding rapidly, these countries are largely using planning and design methods that will result in ineffective and ecologically destructive projects due to the emerging and unpredictable climate conditions, argues a paper published in the scientific journal PLoS Biology.

Entitled “Converging Currents in Climate-Relevant Conservation: Water, Infrastructure, and Institutions,” the paper discusses how climate change presents traps for both economic development and the conservation of species and ecosystems.

“If we look at the Colorado River in North America, the policies and infrastructure that govern a huge region of the US and Mexico were based on an enormous hydrological error about the amount of water that would available in the future – in the time we are living now. The infrastructure we’re building worldwide right now is based on the same assumptions that we made back then. We run a huge risk of making poor nations poorer and accelerating the decline of species and ecosystems through bad development investments,” says John Matthews, Director of Freshwater Climate Change at Conservation International and lead author of the paper.

Massive structures like the Hoover dam, designed in the 1930s during a wetter climate, now hold only about 30 percent of their designed capacity. Downstream cities in Nevada, California, and Arizona and farmers in the US and Mexico have invested assuming they would have the hydropower and water necessary to keep growing economically. The gaps between the current climate and how much water the region needs will only continue to grow. Unfortunately, the developed world has exported the same kinds of policies and infrastructure design approaches to the developing world. “These dams last a long time – decades, even centuries. So approaches to infrastructure investment that ignore shifting climate conditions are a time bomb. And they will explode during the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren,” says Matthews. 

According to the paper, a group of development banks calculated that most developing countries spend between two and six percent of their GDP on infrastructure development – a proportion which accounts for almost half of all international financial institutions’ lending. Moreover, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that about 40 percent of all development investments are at risk due to climate change. Water-related investments are especially critical. The World Bank invests about $10 billion in water management globally alone. The United Nations has stated that humans will experience most of the negative impacts through the lens of water – droughts, floods, extreme storms, famines, and changes in disease transmission and frequency. The same is true for nature: water is critical for both terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems.

 “The conservation community is in danger of becoming irrelevant if we don’t engage with the groups that are making decisions that will affect ecosystems for decades: the engineers and economists who design and finance water infrastructure. Many of them are implementing plans that will rapidly get out of sync with the climate,” said Bart Wickel, Senior Conservation Hydrologist at the World Wildlife Fund, and co-author of the paper.

Sarah Freeman, Conservation Hydrologist at the World Wildlife Fund, and co-author, added: “By integrating ecosystems into infrastructure we can deliver the resources that will lift the developing world out of poverty and help to minimize the impacts of climate change on the environment. People and species have to adapt to climate change together.”

Poor investment and management decisions risk ecological transformations caused by climate change, which in turn could trigger economic crises, the paper argues, citing Rwanda as an example. That country faced a moment of truth in 2004: a drought threatened to cut off 90 percent of the country’s hydropower as a result of the persistent destruction of wetlands for agriculture and energy production. Rwanda’s leaders realized that sustainable water use was key to helping the country develop a strong economy. Since 2004, Rwanda diversified its energy production, restored wetlands, helped multiple sectors work together around water, and changed agricultural policies to integrate wetlands ecosystems.

The authors of the paper recommend a three-step process for conservation science to provide a practical decision-making tool for funding, designing and operating water infrastructure:
• Consider alternatives to building new infrastructure, particularly large ones.
• Explicitly integrate ecosystems into infrastructure development.
• Reduce the vulnerability of the infrastructure and its impacted ecosystems over the operational lifetime of the project.

“Climate sustainable water resource management should be part of the long-term strategy of the conservation community to help economies and terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems to adjust to an uncertain future. Given the risks for human communities and ecosystems from climate change, ecologists working in the developing world need to think more like development economists, and economists need to think more like ecologists,” the paper concluded.


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