Combating Climate Change with Infrastructure Investments: How Traditional Methods May Contribute to Risk

The negative effects of climate change are well documented, especially for small island developing states (SIDS) in Oceania. These threats include sea level rise, coastal erosion, and increased intensity of tropical storms (i.e. more dangerous storm surge, strong winds, and high rates of precipitation). Traditionally, there are common civil engineering structures that combat these threats. Seawalls made from concrete, rocks, or reinforced sand barriers can be built to hold off sea level rise, or prevent storm surges from moving inland. Beach nourishment is the process of replenishing sand along coastlines, either done through the direct replacement of sand or the construction of hydraulic structures called “groins” to limit the erosive movement of waves. Other methods include preserving mangroves, barrier reefs, and other natural ecosystems which act as protection from storm events. These traditional methods have specifically been integrated into country’s adaptation plans, including Tuvalu’s and Kiribati’s.

Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project

Coastal protection in Tuvalu is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Lands and Survey, Public Works Department, and Department of the Environment. However, currently none of these departments have the resources or capacity to monitor coastal change nor the ability to coordinate work between departments. The Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project plans to protect over 2,780 meters of vulnerable coastline along three of their nine inhabited islands. Implemented by the United Nations Development Program and funded by the Green Climate Fund ($36 million), this seven year plan is set to be completed by 2024. The three main outputs include strengthening awareness and knowledge of resilient coastal management, reducing vulnerability of key coastal infrastructure, and establishing a long-term sustainable financing mechanism. Site specific coastal infrastructure will be designed and implemented for 10% of the vulnerable coastlines in the country.

Kiribati National Adaptation Program of Action

Kiribati is also implementing their own adaptation program. The Kiribati Adaptation Program was a 13-year project ending in 2016 that included improving water supply, coastal management protection, and population settlement planning. This program had a total budget around $7 million, and was funded by the World Bank, United Nations Development Program, and the Japanese and Australian Governments. Similar to the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project, Kiribati’s plan included building capacity and awareness to coastal threats. Since this program is already completed, the United Nations is taking the lessons learned throughout the project to develop a $45 million project on furthering strengthening community resilience through whole island initiatives.

The Levee Effect and its Application to SIDS

Gilbert White, who is often referred to as the “Father of Flood Management,” first coined the phrase “Levee Effect” in his 1942 dissertation. The levee effect refers to the paradox that after a levee is built it is human nature to feel more secure and continue to remain in the flood prone area. This can put individuals at greater risk, as they are now more susceptible to larger floods that compromise the infrastructure built to protect them. This effect extends to more than just levees and is specifically applicable to SIDS.

Negative Effects of Seawalls

Seawalls are meant to hold by the tides and storm surges through the use of physical barriers. However, these have the detrimental effect of forcing waves to unprotected areas causing concentrated erosion in a new location. This is specifically occurring in Kiribati, where the infrastructure built by outside organizations during their adaptation program is already failing. A seawall built and funded by the World Bank to protect a freshwater pipeline and electrical lines diverted storm surges to an exposed section causing more damage and threatening the water supply for the entire island. Seawalls are static structures and as sea levels continue to rise, they are weakened and become ineffective. Seawalls can be breached and then rendered useless as seen in SIDS.

“They’re a civil engineering solution, rather than marine.”

Minister of Public Works and Utilities for Kiribati, Cliff Jullerat

Negative Effects of Beach Nourishment

Filling in sand from other locations to “rebuild” a beach destroys the natural landscape and ecosystem causing more problems than it solves. The sand used to replace eroded sand may have a different chemical composition or grain size thus altering the environmental makeup the landscape while simultaneously burying organisms living in the sand. The sand is often removed from near shore locations, which can lead to the disruption of underwater coral beds which act as storm surge barriers.

Need for Holistic and Practical Solutions

While outside organizations may feel they are conducting valuable work by developing these island’s “coastal protection infrastructure,” they are contributing to these nations’ risk. Failed attempts at building resiliency leave local communities more vulnerable and not only from the threat of climate change. As in the case of Kiribati, parts of their coastal adaptation program led to increased pollution and spread life threatening diseases in cities. Along with overpopulation, citizens are unable to focus on the threat of climate change because they must focus on more immediate threats to their livelihood. What was once the best practices of engineering is causing more harm to these nations and is wasting valuable time and resources. These countries are in dire need of outside assistance whether it be funding or technical expertise, but this is also not an issue that can be solved by money and engineers alone, especially when outside sources do not live with the outcomes.

Kiribati and Tuvalu have been described by the UN as not having the adequate resources or capacity to monitor, let alone address, the threats of climate change, not to mention the other nations in the region. Along with this, there is a disconnect between research, policy makers, and technical experts in the implementation of adaptation plans in the region. This has created the conditions that has led to adaptation plans not building resiliency, rather they are delaying environmental threats until they are a worse and a more difficult problem.

Matthew Preisser is a second year dual degree student at the LBJ School and Cockrell School of Engineering (Master's of Public Affairs and Environmental and Water Resources Engineering). He graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Biosystems Engineering and minors in German and Sustainability in 2018. His research interests include the application of technology and applied sciences to benefit at-risk communities impacted by climate change and extreme weather events. Matthew is currently a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow where he is researching the incorporation of socioeconomic factors into predictive flood modeling. He is also a Brumley Next Generation Fellow through the Robert Strauss Center.

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