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Brunel International Lecture Series: Africa, November 2022

The second lecture of the Brunel International Series discussed Africa’s unique challenges in relation to climate change – including population growth, urbanisation and energy needs – and how to take these into account when building resilient infrastructure.

The 14th Brunel International Lecture Series, which is being produced by the ICE and the International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure (ICSI), shines a spotlight on building equitable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure around the world. The second stop on its virtual tour of the globe, on 28 November 2022, was Africa.

14th Brunel international series, Africa
Click image to enlarge

The event began with some personal context from keynote speaker Vera Bukachi, African urban development expert at University College London and UN-Habitat, on today’s rapid urbanisation, barriers to implementing sustainable infrastructure in Africa and the need for solution-driven initiatives.

A panel discussion was then hosted by Keith Howells, ICE President 2022-23.

Africa Street

Sub-Saharan Africa’s population will nearly double to more than 2 billion by mid-century (credit: iStock/peeterv)

400 million
people in Africa are living in informal settlements

3.5 million
people in Nairobi are living in such settlements (nearly 70%)

600 million
people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity

What are the challenges?

Many of the challenges experienced in Africa are related to a growing population. According to UN projections, sub-Saharan Africa’s population will nearly double to more than 2 billion by mid-century.

The region is growing three times faster than the global average and, by 2070, it will become the most populous place globally, surpassing Asia.

At a global level, a key challenge is a lack of climate equity. According to the latest IPCC report, Africa is one of the lowest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and, yet, is the world’s least climate-resilient region, with high vulnerability to climate change and low readiness for adaptation to climate shock. Significant, widespread loss and damage is attributable to climate change.

Financing resilient infrastructure

The more fragile the country, the less adaptation financing it receives, which creates a vicious cycle, said Yolanda Chakava, infrastructure adviser at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

This, she believes, can be changed by moving to a risk-informed approach to financing and policy reform, such as allowing Africa to accelerate its net-zero pathway to a certain level of development before other stringent conditions related to green financing are put in place.

The progress made at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) with the loss and damage agreement will help to provide support to vulnerable communities.

According to Chakava, it is not just about spending more but about spending better by locating vulnerable communities and prioritising funding.

Influencing policy

A combination of weak urban housing, inadequate planning and anti-urban policies has made it difficult for African cities to maintain a grip on rapid population growth.

A growing number of people live in informal urban settlements, of which Kibera in the Nairobi Dam area of Kenya is one of the largest on the continent, with a population of about 350,000. Nearly 70% (3.5 million) of Nairobi’s population live in informal settlements.

This rapid and skewed urbanisation is one of Africa’s key socioeconomic challenges, said Bukachi, who pointed to the growth of informal settlements in countries including Kenya, South Africa and Angola.

Some 400 million people in Africa live in such settlements, with this number expected to triple by 2050.

As people are drawn to urban areas to find jobs, these communities become densely populated, with families living in poor-quality housing, often with a lack of access to basic services such as electricity and clean running water.

There are also some complicated issues related to energy provision for this growing population. Africa needs much more domestic energy. About 600 million people live in sub-Saharan Africa without access to electricity. Those that do have access endure rolling power cuts and, often, a poverty penalty, which sees those in informal settlements pay crippling prices for their utilities – up to 140% more than those living in formal areas.

While development of renewable infrastructure should continue at pace, Mike Theobald, director of energy transition at WSP, pointed to the need for a bridging energy source to avoid restricting growth.

While renewables grow and become further embedded, the use of conventional energy sources such as gas, especially if coupled with carbon-capture technologies, can play a vital role.

When looking at the global energy mix, Theobald said, we must consider how some regions will need to make use of fossil fuels for longer than others if they are to prosper.

As he pointed out, it’s “too tough an ask” for populations to wait a decade or more to get connected.

Renewable energy initiatives continue to be rolled out, including the Africa Minigrids Programme announced at COP27. This ambitious scheme aims to bring power to roughly 260 million people in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030.

Credit: KDI

Kibera Public Space Project

In 2006, the Kibera Public Space Project in Nairobi transformed parts of Africa’s largest informal settlement and created physical, social and economic benefits for the community.

A total of 11 former unsafe “waste sites” were turned into thriving hubs with facilities including toilet blocks, laundry centres, community halls and green spaces.

Climate resilience was improved for about 1,000 households and, by attracting further government investment, a hospital and school were built.

The model for the Kibera project has been redeployed to other informal settlements across the continent.

In Nairobi, its success spurred the creation of the government-led Urban Fabrics Initiative, which supports small-scale urban upgrading and infrastructure projects in informal settlements.

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:

How are engineers getting involved now?

Engineers are working hard to address Africa’s rapid urbanisation and the wider ‘green growth’ agenda that brings sustainability to the forefront of any infrastructure project.

A range of examples were showcased in the lecture, from the local-level Kibera Public Space Project in Nairobi (see panel above) to the continent-level African Infrastructure Futures Conference.

Held directly after COP27, this conference brought together 150 government, investment, business, academia and civil society stakeholders to discuss what sustainable infrastructure meant in an African context.

System-level change

One good example of taking a systemic approach to embedding climate resilience, as cited by Chakava, is the 22.5km Hargeisa bypass in Somaliland, which was developed to decongest the capital, Hargeisa, and reduce transportation time on the Berbera Corridor.

The first step was to identify future climate risks on the bypass, based on the localised climate data. This highlighted rainfall, high temperatures and wind as potential vulnerabilities.

Taking a systemic approach to long-term climate resilience, the team then ‘zoomed out’ to look at the Berbera Corridor as a whole.

This entailed looking at how the assets integrated into the system and what future climate risks, such as drought and sea-level rises, meant for the climate resilience and mitigation measures they needed to apply.

This approach informed changes in the project’s design and had an impact on construction. As flood estimates rose by 20%, the number of culverts was raised from 12 to 24 and changes were made to the design and location of the 210m Wadi bridge.

Influencing early-stage decision-making

Chakava stressed the importance of thinking about climate resilience early in the design process. Although resilience was considered early in the Hargeisa bypass project, it could have been considered sooner.

It is important to involve the right expertise at the right stages to consider the complex interactions and contingency for future scenarios in terms of the system, as well as at a localised level. The Hargeisa project developed a framework that can now be used for future road projects.

In Kenya, 3if – the Integrated and Inclusive Infrastructure Framework is a guidebook created for use when developing policy and when planning, designing and implementing infrastructure upgrades. The guide took learnings from government, built-environment professionals, academics, students and end-users.

What changes are needed?

The current lack of engineering capacity can be addressed in a number of ways, with collaboration being a crucial element. Bukachi highlighted three calls to action:

  • Harnessing Africa’s vision
  • Championing reform-based coalitions
  • Learning from and investing in accessible research and education

Harnessing Africa’s vision

This is vital for engineers, whether they are based within or outside of the continent. It includes actions needed by 2063 in line with the pan-Africa Agenda 2063 strategic framework that aims to deliver inclusive and sustainable.

Championing reform-based coalitions

Africa needs to re-invent the ways in which it works with communities. Growing evidence from the Africa Cities Research Consortium and the African Centre for Cities shows that some of the most complex and politically intractable problems are more likely to be addressed effectively when guided by reform-based coalitions that incorporate the interests and ideas of those most directly affected by these problems.

Investing in research and education

Not only does Africa need more engineers, it also needs to change the way engineering is taught ­– fostering the development of solution-focused engineers who understand the context of their environments and have a strong grasp of innovative techniques and technologies.

The global engineering community has an important role to play in investing in accessible research and education on the continent. Bridging the knowledge divide is essential to ensuring there is the right quantity and quality of engineering personnel.

Bukachi made a plea for all engineers based outside of Africa to consider projects that partner with African-based engineering research institutes.

She pointed to the Global Challenges Research Fund, supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering, as an example of how an international organisation could support training.

Knowledge transfer could also help the region to learn from the mistakes of others, to inform thinking in terms of planning and design, and to grow capabilities.

It is important to create the right environment to build on innovation, and for this to be encouraged throughout the engineering value chain. “This continent is full of young, vibrant and innovative people,” Bukachi pointed out.

Some of the most politically intractable problems are more likely to be addressed effectively when guided by reform-based coalitions that incorporate the ideas of those people directly affected.

New approaches to partnership models are also needed, according to Martin Manuhwa, chair of the Committee on Engineering Capacity Building at the World Federation of Engineering Organisations.

He emphasised the need to partner with local communities in the design of smart cities, and encouraged policymakers to engage young engineers in designing courses to boost skills and inclusivity.

“Engineers are the solution to most of the problems we face on the continent,” he said.

Working with local communities was also flagged by Bukachi as having led to some valuable innovations in terms of nature-based solutions in informal settlements in Nairobi and Tanzania.

Keith Howells finished with a call to action for all engineers to share knowledge and best practice with the ICE to assist with its role in disseminating this more widely across the engineering community.

  • Sarah Hall, ICE climate knowledge manager

About the series

The Brunel opening lecture introduced some of the themes that the series will tackle on its worldwide journey. Comprising a mix of physical and virtual gatherings, the series will comprise 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 posed by our changing climate for the engineering community.

  • Opening lecture: 29 September 2022
  • Europe lecture: 20 March 2023
  • South-East Asia lecture: 5 July 2023
  • Americas lecture: 19 September 2023
  • Middle East and North Africa lecture: 13 November 2023
  • Australasia lecture: February 2024
  • South Asia lecture: May 2024
  • Closing lecture in East Asia (Hong Kong): July 2024

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