Op-Ed: Puerto Rico’s urgent need for resilient infrastructure
The coronavirus pandemic, the January 2020 earthquakes and Hurricane María in 2017 have shown us the urgent need for resilient infrastructure in Puerto Rico.
Using the United Natons’ “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (SDG) as a framework and the most recent American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) “Puerto Rico Infrastructure Report Card,” Puerto Rico is far from meeting a standard of any sort. Puerto Rico received a D- overall GPA in the ASCE repord card.
The World Bank estimates that developing countries need to invest around 4.5 of their GDP to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in a decade.
Although one might not consider Puerto Rico as a developing country, Puerto Rico’s GDP is around $105 billion. (FY 2019). According to ASCE, Puerto Rico needs to increase investment by $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion annually, or up to $23 billion in over 10 years, to update its infrastructure to support economic growth and achieve competitiveness. You do the math…
But what exactly is infrastructure? Infrastructure is the means to deliver an essential service. It is infrastructure that provides us the ability to manage our resources and get those resources to where there are human needs, according to The Economist’s essay “The Critical Role of Infrastructure for the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Investment in infrastructure is a crucial driver of economic growth and development for any country. Just last week, a delegation from the White House convened in Puerto Rico to explore opportunities in the pharmaceutical and manufacturing plants.
The pandemic has shifted the need for products and services close to America and given Puerto Rico’s previous background in the pharma and medical devices industries, it seems like the perfect moment to bring back those industries to the island. This visit is the perfect example of why Puerto Rico needs to hop on the sustainable infrastructure bandwagon.
The renewable energy industry employs 2.3 million people worldwide yet only 2.3% of the energy produced in Puerto Rico is renewable. The ASCE Report Card gives Puerto Rico an “F” in energy.
The high cost of energy has been a well-known factor as to why industries do not see the island as a potential hub. The network is very fragile as we learned after hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Moving toward a more resilient grid will require not only capital investment but also codes and standards for grid design that takes in renewable energy as the main source of energy. Renewable energy can be the most important driver for the growth of new industries. Clean energy is an important element to reduce emissions of harmful greenhouse gases.
No economic development is worth the damage done to the environment. Promoting energy efficiency from renewable sources and investing in scientific research and innovation are important to facilitate sustainable development in Puerto Rico.
Physical infrastructure plays an important role in achieving sustainable development in the long haul. Building resilient infrastructure protects the environment by taking ecosystems into consideration all while preserving our natural resources and reducing the human footprint. Infrastructure needs to be resilient to the shocks and stresses of the future.
It will provide vital services needed to be less vulnerable and recover in a shorter time. Events like hurricanes, pandemics and heavier rains pose a threat to critical infrastructure. Just by providing proper care and maintenance to our existing infrastructure — like dredging water reservoirs and promoting education on stormwater runoff effects — we minimize the negative impacts.
Goals tied to infrastructure
All 17 SDG’s are tied to infrastructure. According to The Economist’s essay, infrastructure will be instrumental in meeting the SDGs.
Integrating green infrastructure — such as green roofs, urban gardens, and rainwater gardens — is vital as it contributes to assist in flood control, improve air quality and sedimentation of rivers, lakes, and water reservoirs.
Redevelopment of existing facilities reduces the carbon footprint and greenhouse emissions of building new facilities. Green infrastructure is an open door for innovation and research. It also reduces costs as it fosters reuse of materials and incorporates new technologies.
Sustainable, resilient infrastructure enables the government and the private sector to advance economic growth while promoting quality of life by bridging the gap of social participation and broadening education opportunities. This in turn, increases social mobility.
Resilient infrastructure protects the economy by reducing disruptions to industries and economic activity from events such as storms, droughts, and earthquakes. The vulnerabilities of these events have shown us that climate uncertainties need to be taken into consideration always.
Puerto Rico needs to secure financing to meet the needs and demands of resilient infrastructure. We have the human resources and technical expertise, but every year many engineers, planners and environmental specialists leave the island due to the lack of employment opportunities.
Weak governance and regulation loopholes along with corruption have hindered Puerto Rico’s potential toward achieving this. It continues to be a challenge and it will be for the new political leadership the island elects in November.
Stuck in the same spot
Due to lack of transparency and corruption — as these contracts and activities to develop critical and resilient infrastructure represent a lot money — we move two steps forward and two steps back.
However, funding provided by the U.S. government after Hurricanes Irma and María, the January 2020 earthquakes and now the pandemic need to be closely monitored. Another challenge is to harmonize the work being done by non-government organizations and communities along with the one being done by the private sector, government, and professional organizations.
The message is written on the wall. Puerto Rico needs to URGENTLY take a look at its existing infrastructure and stop putting band aids to problems that have plagued the island for decades such as construction in areas prone to flooding, non-compliant landfills, destruction of natural barriers such as sand dunes and mangroves, an old energy grid system, lack of a capital improvements/infrastructure plan, just to name a few.
By incorporating SDG’s into every action and working all together, we can achieve an infrastructure that can withstand any impact and become the backbone of our competitiveness. Achieving the SDGs requires action and cooperation from government, communities, and the private sector.
Resilient infrastructure is the one that ties all SDG’s together and the one that will be essential to how Puerto Rico can survive another disaster and recover from the perils of a changing climate.
We all need to work together to achieve a sustainable Puerto Rico!