The tragic mudslides that killed hundreds of people in Sierra Leone because emergency vehicles could not get to them on time, show the critical importance of investing in infrastructure, writes NOMVULA MOKONYANE
As the greatest flooding tragedy to have befallen Sierra Leon continues to brutalise this great African nation, what has been even more heartbreaking is that half of the deaths could have been avoided if the country had just half the infrastructure that a developing country should have.
When emergency vehicles cannot reach some parts of the city because there are no roads or bridges, when even the people that are still alive but trapped under rubble must yield to death because help is trapped on the other side of the floods, then as Africans we are all damned, as governments we must accelerate our infrastructure programmes to protect the most vulnerable in society.
According to a recent Ernest & Young report, Africa’s largest infrastructure deficits are found in:
Power — According to research from The World Bank Group (WBG), the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa (with a combined population of 800 million) generate roughly the same amount of power as Spain (with a population of 45 million).
Roads — Only one-third of Africans living in rural areas are within two kilometres of an all-season road, compared with two-thirds of the population in other developing regions.
These catalysts for growth can also include access to water, as it remains one of the biggest challenges facing Africa’s growth trajectory. As far back as 2012, a World Bank Report entitled “Future of Water in African Cities” cited, “Since the late 90’s urban access to improved water supply in Sub-Saharan Africa has expanded, albeit slowly. Efforts to increase access to improved water supply were not enough to cope with population growth. As a consequence, the number of urban dwellers that gained access to unimproved sources of drinking water such as wells, boreholes and vendors increased. Reliance on surface water – such as rivers, dams, lakes, ponds, streams, canals, irrigation channels– declined in both relative and absolute terms”.
This clearly demonstrates that water resources, road infrastructure and power utilities projects remain core to Africa’s plan of the future.
Besides the priorities of resolving conflict and bringing peace and stability, second to that is infrastructure because without it there can be no development, and as Sierra Leon has shown, there can be no life either.
The cost of addressing Africa’s infrastructure deficit is estimated to be approximately US$90b every year for the next decade.
The EY report is clear that effectively addressing Africa’s infrastructure gap will help:
Strengthen the transport, power, health, education, water and sewage sectors
Improve quality of access for all
Significantly increase economic capacity
Give countries wider access to their large natural resource deposits, enabling more efficient exports
If you travel from Dar es Salaam to Cape Town via public transport, as one author recently did, and it becomes painfully obvious. The 1 800-kilometre train ride between the Tanzanian capital and Kapiri Mposhi clunks down over a period of well over two days. It stops in unexpected places, breaks down regularly, and is unable to carry heavy goods. Disused wagons are common, and travellers can look out of the window to see the abandoned wreckage of older trains by the side of the track. Imagine the effects such unreliable but critical public transport has on the regional economy. Imagine what would happen if that train were to be used for life saving duties, it would fall flat, along with lots of lives.
The Tazara, (a railroad in East Africa linking the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania with the town of Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia’s Central Province) one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest post-independence infrastructure projects, is indicative of the transportation issues across the continent as a whole. Railway systems are sparse and, when they exist, of poor quality. Many roads are the same, of poor quality, narrow, and dangerous. There are also not enough of them. Only around 60% of Africans live within two kilometres of an all-season road. In Kenya, it is only 32% of people, in Angola 31%, in Tanzania 18%, and in Ethiopia it is as low as 10.5%. In much the same way as lack of internet connectivity limits your addressable market, so too does the lack of transport infrastructure.
One of the issues that remains a perpetual bugbear in South Africa, is the government’s ambitious but at times slow infrastructure spending programme to unlock the country’s economic growth potent, the former is resultant from a number of challenges of capacity to management. The general positive effect of basic infrastructure on income growth, poverty alleviation and development is confirmed,
Consider a simple statistic. Every month in the developing world, more than 5-million people migrate to urban areas, where jobs, schools, and opportunities of all kinds are often easier to find. But when people migrate, the need for basic services — water, power and transport — goes with them, highlighting the boom in infrastructure demand.
The poorest countries struggle the most with floods and mudslides along with the poorest communities even in richer countries and the reason is simple, lack of Infrastructure.
Nearly 400 people are confirmed dead and at least 600 are still missing following the Freetown mudslide and flooding that devastated the Sierra Leone capital. Flooding is not unusual in Sierra Leone, where unsafe houses in makeshift settlements can be swept away by heavy rains. The biggest challenge in the rescue missions which have come from all over the world has been the lack of infrastructure in the heavily affected communities. Where there are no proper roads and bridges leading to communities, how will help be delivered. Lack of infrastructure has proven to be as deadly as the floods and mudslides themselves. The rains often hit areas in and around Freetown, an overcrowded coastal city of more than one million people.
This is not only unique to Sierra Leone. On June 6, 2017, The South African Weather Service issued a severe weather warning for flash flooding, hail, and gale force winds in the Western Cape. Rainfall of up to 50mm within 24 hours was expected in certain areas. Informal settlements, such as Masiphumelele, which is on a wetland, [and therefore] very vulnerable for flooding and mudslides and areas such as Gugulethu and Khayelitsha are also on wetlands, were identified as priorities.
Then there is the economic effect of lack of infrastructure. Nedbank senior economist Nicola Weimar notes that the continued slow down in the South African economy can largely be attributed to persistent and significant infrastructure constraints, with the most broadly felt being the lack of sufficient and reliable power supply to fuel higher levels of growth. However, while there is an urgent need to address the issue of energy supply in South Africa, a lack of capacity in a number of other forms of economic infrastructure, from insufficient road, rail, port, communications and other logistical infrastructure, have also proven hugely challenging for the economy.
Water, roads and power are critical ingredients to the success of Africa’s economic game plan. In South Africa we have accepted that without a major state investments into these sectors of the economy, economic growth will remain sluggish and prevent private sector investment into the economy. Our capital spend on roads, rails, dams and other infrastructure runs into billions of rands over the past decade and billions more into the coming decade, as is annually reported by Presidents at the State of the Nation address, the Finance Minister’s Budget speech and Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission Plans.
It sounds simple, but poor roads hurt business. As it turns out, lack of railway infrastructure does not only hurts the economy, it hurts lives the most vulnerable.
Mokonyane is Minister of Water & Sanitation. ANC NEC member