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Brunel International Lecture Series: Americas, September 2023

The Americas are uniquely vulnerable to natural disasters, including the often devastating impacts of climate change. This leg of the 14th Brunel Lecture Series explored the main environmental threats and considered the most effective ways to make key infrastructure more able to withstand them for the long term.

The 14th Brunel International Lecture Series, produced by the ICE and the International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure (ICSI), shines a spotlight on equitable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure challenges around the world and how the engineering community can help to address them.

The fifth lecture in the series focused on the Americas and the varied problems this large and diverse region is working hard to solve.

Carolina Basualdo, mayor of the Argentinian municipality of Despeñaderos, and Sharon Palacio, mayor of Belmopan in Belize, gave the keynote addresses.

These were followed by a panel discussion chaired by David Smith, senior vice-president and director of strategy at Stantec and co-chair of the ICE’s Sustainable, Resilient Infrastructure Community Advisory Board.

The panellists were:

  • Motoko Aizawa, author and researcher on sustainable infrastructure
  • Iain Dimond, project director, Darlington Small Modular Reactor, AtkinsRéalis, Toronto
  • Dr José Macharé Ordoñez, professor in the Department of Geology at Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería, Lima
  • Dr Mari Tye, project scientist at the Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory in the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
14th Brunel international series, Americas
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What are the challenges?

Latin America, including the Caribbean, is the world’s second most disaster-prone region.

Last September, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction published their Overview of Disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean 2000-2022 report. The aim was to understand how past trends can lead to a safer future.

Disasters have affected more than 190 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean since 2000.

Between then and 2022, three out of every 10 people living in the region withstood at least one of its most common natural hazard emergencies.

Floods struck most often, affecting large swathes of the populations of Colombia, Brazil and Peru. But droughts affected the highest number of people in the region: 53 million since 2000.

Some 65% of earthquakes of magnitude 8.0 or higher have occurred in South America, while storms are increasing in frequency and intensity.

Ordoñez considered the engineering response required to manage the risk and mitigate the factors increasing vulnerability.

He concluded that this needed to focus on land use planning, resilient infrastructure systems, capacity building and research on information management.

Istock 1878179074 Cr Fernandopodolsk Sao Paolo Floods

Floods are increasing in frequency in Brazilian cities such as São Paulo (credit: iStock/FernandoPodolski)

Natural disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean, 2000-22

disasters in total, including ...





Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

What is happening now?

Financing resilient and sustainable infrastructure

The speakers referred to two key pieces of legislation in the US. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act 2021 sets aside US$550bn in new spending to overhaul the country’s infrastructure and is an illustration of radical development.

The Inflation Reduction Act 2022 makes a historic commitment to build a new clean energy economy. It is the first of its kind in the US. This US$370bn investment package will reduce energy costs and accelerate private investment in renewable generation projects.

According to Aizawa, all G20 countries have some kind of stimulus fund to foster their economic recovery from Covid and to tackle inflation.

Other countries are pumping trillions of dollars into various sectors, such as renewables and transport. They include Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Mexico, as well as the US.

Referring to the general state of infrastructure in Latin America, Ordoñez quoted the following insights from Washington DC think-tank the Wilson Center: “The region’s physical infrastructure does not meet the development or competitiveness needs of the region and [is] not aligned with the expectations of its populations.”

According to the World Bank, countries in East Asia and the Pacific invest about 8% of GDP in infrastructure on average, while the equivalent figure in Latin America and the Caribbean is about 3%.

These percentages can vary considerably from one nation to another. Argentina spends about 5% of GDP on infrastructure, whereas Brazil and Mexico spend less than 1%. Infrastructure investment is recommended to be at least 4% of GDP.

The analysis also looked in more detail at different types of infrastructure and their relative strengths and weaknesses. The region is doing relatively well on water and electricity, but transport is among its notable weaknesses.

Ordoñez explored the investment required through to the end of this decade to meet the infrastructure component of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Latin America and the Caribbean.

He quoted a 2021 Inter-American Development Bank study stating that more than US$2.22tn would need to be invested in water and sanitation, energy, transport and telecoms infrastructure by 2030 for the region to achieve the SDGs.

Basualdo spoke of the need to secure funding that would enable local governments to tackle climate change. She noted that Despeñaderos was one of the first municipalities in Argentina to make an agreement with a private company to convert biodiesel into a product that the municipal plant could use.

Aizawa stressed the importance of allocating enough budget to address equity, inclusion and empowerment activities on infrastructure projects, and thereby meet social objectives.

Istock 1200806044 Cr Adamkaz Renewable Energy Infrastructure

New US legislation will accelerate the development of renewable energy infrastructure (credit: iStock/adamkaz)

Sustainable Development Goals:

Linking our work back to the UN SDGs is a core part of the ICE’s plan and mission. This article ties in with the following SDGs:

What changes are needed?

Influencing early-stage decision-making

Aizawa addressed the need for environmental social impact assessments (ESIAs) in anticipating the likely negative effects of infrastructure projects and advising decision-makers on ways to manage these.

She cited some of the problems with the high concentration of wind power schemes in Oaxaca, Mexico, to illustrate the adverse impacts of renewable energy projects.

Problems with the scheme have included the lack of consultation afforded to local communities, especially indigenous people, about the development’s impacts on their land. There have been allegations of deception, bribery, intimidation and even violence against them and human rights campaigners.

ESIAs are important, as they are a tool that can help engineers and social scientists to work effectively together to mitigate such problems.

Clear communication is key in explaining the benefits of any project to the affected communities and winning societal support.

Proper planning is also needed upstream: national and local governments must envision a just and equitable energy transition over the medium to long term, informed by citizens’ needs and sectoral, regional and national views.

Involving and educating the public

Palacio’s presentation focused on the role of education concerning urban development and its contribution to climate change.

She touched on the need for:

  • Improved building designs
  • Better household waste management
  • Increased use of renewable energy, rainwater harvesting technologies and grey-water re-use systems

This was set within the context of her country’s vulnerability to the adverse impacts of climate change.

Just over 40% of Belize’s population live in coastal communities, which are more exposed than those inland to extreme weather from the Caribbean.

Founded as a planned community and capital city in 1970, Belmopan could be described as an immediate adaptation to climate change, as it was conceived after Hurricane Hattie destroyed the then capital of Belize City in 1961.

Unlike its predecessor, Belmopan was located inland, 76m above sea level, with a view to negating the risk of coastal flooding.

Basualdo explained that her government in Despeñaderos was working with the local university to turn into reality a space created for the city by children online through the project Minecraft: Building Dreams.

This enables children to use the popular video game to imagine what they want their city to be like.

Belmopan, the capital of Belize, was built inland to reduce the risk of flooding (credit: iStock/mtcurado).
Belmopan, the capital of Belize, was built inland to reduce the risk of flooding (credit: iStock/mtcurado).

System-level change

Tye focused on holistic thinking and the interdependent nature of society. She approached the issue of resilience with the elements of fragility – namely: exposure, sensitivity, interdependence and adaptive capacity – in mind. The sum of these four parts determines how fragile or resilient a given system will be.

She stressed that resilience and resistance are not the same thing. Continuing to use barriers to deal with natural hazards isn’t an example of building resilience, for instance.

Adaptation is the sweet spot, where resilience and sustainability are considered together.

Still, adaptive solutions may need revisiting so there needs to be enough flexibility for engineers to return and build again. They must therefore think and design in different ways.

“Lego is what brought me into engineering,” Tye said. “Thinking like a child designing Lego buildings… helps us to reconsider the future in ways that can be decommissioned and deconstructed, and re-adapted for the future life that we would like to lead.”

Credit: AtkinsRéalis

Nuclear and the energy trilemma

Against the backdrop of Canada’s legal requirements to be carbon neutral by 2050, Dimond discussed nuclear’s role in addressing the so-called energy trilemma and striking the right balance of energy security, environmental sustainability and energy equity.

He explained that Canada needs to add about 6GW of new generation a year on average over the next 30 years to replace old assets and meet the demands of a growing population with increasingly electrified transport and heating systems.

This equates to building about three times the historical average over the past half century.

He explored the role of nuclear for baseload energy generation as part of the overall mix with wind, solar and hydro, but as a key part of the solution in the next 20 to 25 years as battery technologies develop to enable variable generation methods to meet demand.

Large CANDU reactors (1000MW; pictured) and small modular reactors (300MW) will both be required to meet the generation needs of the next 25 years.

Influencing policy

Tye emphasised the part that engineers must play in lobbying government to ensure that suitable laws are enacted to drive change using the holistic approach. This involves a combination of governance, government incentives and enforcement.

Engineers can also encourage collaboration with different communities, such as social scientists, lawyers and economists, she added.

This should ensure that everyone is thinking about, and planning for, the medium to long term rather than just the next couple of years.

Aizawa finished by drawing out two quotes from the November/December 2021 issue of the ASCE’s Civil Engineering magazine to illustrate the influence that engineers need to have on policy: “engineers should begin to integrate the social sciences into the physical ones” and “policy will only get better when engineers get involved to create holistic solutions”.

  • Sarah Hall

About the series

Comprising a mix of physical and virtual gatherings, the worldwide Brunel series will feature nine lectures in total, culminating in a Hong Kong event in July 2024. As the series progresses, it will explore the regional and global challenges – and opportunities – that climate change presents to the engineering community.

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