Infrastructure is often seen as a panacea for development. While investment in infrastructure is only one of UN’s 17 SDGs (Goal 9) (a set of globally-agreed aspirations that will define world’s development agenda over the next decade and a half), infrastructure is being seen to have a much bigger role – it has been proclaimed by the UN and others (see this and this) as a silver bullet for achieving the various Sustainable Development Goals. As per UNCTAD’s World Investment Report 2014 on Investing in the SDGs, the total investment in economic infrastructure – power, transport (roads, rails and ports), telecommunications and water and sanitation – in developing countries, currently stands at $1 trillion per year and will need to rise to between $1.6 and $2.5 trillion annually over the period 2015-2030, in order that the SDGs are achieved. When disaggregated, one-third of this investment (i.e. $300 billion at present, another 260 million by 2030) is meant for transport and energy.
This global push for infrastructure development may spell doom for global biodiversity. Ecosystems across the world
are already reeling under the devastating impacts of both large-scale hub (i.e. ports, dams, mines, oil rigs) and linear infrastructure (roads, railways lines, canals, oil and gas pipelines and power lines). Linear infrastructure such as roads are known to have a disproportionately high impact not only in the form of wildlife roadkills and disruption of animal movement/migration but more importantly because they open up intact habitat leaving it more vulnerable to other drivers such as poachers, invasive species, wildfires and human-wildlife conflict. Roads have fragmented the earth’s land surface into 600,000 pieces, half of which are smaller than 1 sq. Km and 70% of forests now lie within one kilometer of an edge. The Amazon basin already has 100,000 Km of roads. Thanks to the global thrust on infrastructure development, the next few decades will see an unprecedented proliferation in roads. 25 million Km of new roads are expected to built by 2050 (a 60% increase), with 90% of them to be constructed in developing countries – the last bastions of biodiversity. More than 11,000 kilometers of roads and railway projects have already been planned through tiger landscapes in Asia, in addition to canals, oil and gas pipelines and power lines.
Global conservation efforts are no match for this imminent onslaught of infrastructure proliferation promoted by the global development agenda. Proactive zoning for keeping critical habitats out of bounds for infrastructure development has its role but also its limitations. Even as the global conservation community is rallying for stricter ‘no-go’ restrictions on industrial and infrastructure development for protected areas (e.g. IUCN’s Amman Resolution on Protected Areas), countries around the world are undergoing increasing Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (see: www.padddtracker.org), with wildlife being cramped into ever smaller habitats that have little connectivity. Mitigation measures such as re-routing to avoid critical habitats and corridors, again, can only go so far – with the sheer scale of roads being planned, there will be no ‘elsewhere’ to re-route the roads. Wildlife crossing structures (underpasses and overpasses) are important but don’t address the indirect impacts of roads on biodiversity.
What we need is a complete rethinking of our reliance on centralized large-scale infrastructure to achieve our development goals. We need to evolve growth models that decentralize avenues for prosperity. We need a strengthening of rural and sub-urban economies so that people don’t have to clamour to metropolises for employment opportunities. We need to develop small-scale decentralized infrastructure like local watersheds, solar microgrids and rural roads instead of building dams and highways. There needs to be a shift in focus from economic infrastructure (that is intended to boost the industrial production) to social infrastructure (that is intended to boost social well-being) such as educational institutions, medical facilities and housing for the poor. If we fail to reinvent our very development model, all our conservation efforts will come to naught. The global conservation community can no longer take a reactionary approach to the impacts of infrastructure development, it has to actively advocate for ‘limits to growth’ for infrastructure!
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