An efficient, climate-resilient road network is an enabler of the long-term prosperity and security of a nation. Good roads lower the cost of transport, facilitate trade, improve access to jobs, education, healthcare and many other crucial services. They aid in national security and disaster management especially in remote areas.
Investing in a sustainable road infrastructure capable of withstanding the test of the elements is imperative. This means addressing the negative effects of intensifying climate hazards like floods, storms, drought and other extreme weather events.
In 2019, for example, Hurricane Idai swept across Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Madagascar, decimating infrastructure valued at over US$ 1 Billion (Ksh 120 billion). In Kenya, the 1997 El Nino weather phenomenon destroyed over 100,000 kilometers of roads with the damage estimated at US$ 670 million.
Climate change is real. In planning, designing, constructing and maintaining our road network, proper attention must be accorded to its immediate and long-term impacts. The Kenya Road Design Manual and Standard Specification is currently being reviewed and updated. The revised version should comprehensively cover evolving climate risks.
Adaptation and resilience is crucial in ensuring sustainable road infrastructure. Kenya can avoid or at least significantly minimize the catastrophic loss of infrastructure from natural calamities by adopting a climate-smart approach.
To this end, climate-proofing our roads must begin with vulnerability mapping of the entire network to determine which roads are at most risk and regions that are most vulnerable to the increasingly volatile weather. The data obtained from such an exercise should then be applied to coming up with climate-sensitive construction standards across all categories of roads.
This should be followed up with an audit of all the roads to assess whether they comply with the new standards and if not, actions needed to make them compliant. A 2016 World Bank report projected that road maintenance costs would increase three-fold as a result of heavier precipitation, flooding and temperatures.
This calls for innovative designs backed by strict enforcement of climate-smart guidelines to reduce vulnerabilities of the country’s road assets to the vagaries of unpredictable weather conditions. The National Climate Action Plan demands measures geared to climate resilience and adaptability be incorporated across all sectors.
Outdated standards aside, a major challenge has been the failure to enforce existing specifications. Rogue contractors collude with corrupt officials to circumvent the rules as clearly evidenced by rampant cases of shoddy work including use of sub-standard materials. Such behaviour only compounds the risks posed by an already deteriorating environment.
In addition, we need more innovative approaches to build resilient roads especially in the drought and flood prone areas. Ethiopia, for instance, has been experimenting with novel materials to improve durability of roads in harsh climatic conditions, including Fibre Mastic Asphalt (FMA) technology, said to extend road surface lifespan by several years.
Although more expensive than traditional asphalt, FMA cuts road maintenance costs. While infrastructure designers ordinarily take into account the impact of the environment and vice versa, there is growing evidence that climate change is causing roads to waste away much faster due to increased temperature and humidity. Flood and drought prone areas are worst affected.
If such impacts are not managed early enough, we must contend with recurrent disruptions and accidents on our roads resulting in loss of man hours and lives. Already we are losing over 3,000 Kenyans to accidents each year. We should be reducing not increasing this number.
Poor roads are a financial burden to the country. They require more money to repair but at the same time increase the cost of transport and doing business. In 2018-2019 financial year alone, over Ksh 100 billion was spent on fixing crumbling roads. Worsening weather means this figure will continue rising further draining the Exchequer.
Bad roads make the economy less productive but also put lives at risk like where humanitarian aid cannot reach intended beneficiaries because of impassable roads. Building resilient roads must be an integral part of combating climate change.
Mr. Murumba is CEO, Impulso Kenya Limited. He can be reached through email@example.com