Infrastructure and its appalling Impacts on Forests, Land and Soils
Anshu J Singh | 22 Nov 2016

For Economies that industrialised in the 20th Century, infrastructure became synonymous with progress, indeed with "civilisation".

  The city, the road, the port and airport; the communication and transport networks; the high-rise buildings and underground tunnels; the power stations and dams, power grids and irrigation systems – all these and more grew in size and scale, through the "great acceleration" of the last century, by several orders of magnitude.

In this, the 21st Century, while infrastructure development in the industrialised countries is reaching a point of saturation, elsewhere – mainly in the Global South, this acceleration has further accelerated.  In their effort to catch up, the "emerging economies", not least China, India and various others in Africa, Asia and Latin America, are now committed to the single - minded pursuit of infrastructure building.  In the three year period 2011 to 2013, China is said to have used more cement than the United States used during the entire 20th century.  Her airlines, which were virtually non-existent 50 years ago, now carry nearly half a billion passengers per year.

India's speed of construction and growth of air travel may not have reached anywhere near these stratospheric levels but that is not for lack of desire or intention.  Our policy makers are explicit in their admiration of current development models and the present government intends to commit some $1.5 trillion of public funds within the next five years to infrastructure investments.   But few among our decision makers have considered what that approach to development, resulting in a doubling of the land under taken up by urbanisation and infrastructure, can do in the longer run to a country's social fabric, economic prospects or environmental quality – not to mention the natural resource base on which reaching all their goals depend. 

The nation's primary goal, to improve the lives and wellbeing of all its citizens is not in question; the nation's strategies on how to achieve this goal are.  People's access to better livelihoods and jobs; adequate food, water and energy; superior health, education and entertainment; and to personal fulfilment generally are not the issues that are up for grabs: how these will be attained and distributed are the questions that now need well-debated answers.

India, like any late-comer to the economic development arena is fortunate in being able to benefit from the prior experience of others, having access to innovations and ideas that are new and much more resource efficient, and a generally clean slate for making choices that are not constrained by the "lock-in" effects of prior decisions.  If it decides to copy the choices made by others in the past, it will end up by paying even heavier costs, since the availability of resources will be even tighter in the future.  If it decides to adapt those choices to its own situation, it may escape some of the pitfalls faced by the early adopters.  But if it decides to leap-frog into a transformative future, by designing its cities, transport systems, power, water and utility infrastructure to be different, suited to its own future needs – local, decentralised, human-centred and human-scaled – it could quickly improve the lives of its citizens today without reducing the options of future generations.

Dr Ashok Khosla Trustee, Club of Rome – India, Co-Chair, International Resources Panel and Chairman, Development Alternatives, said,"Other than water, perhaps no resource created by nature has a more fundamental role in maintaining living systems than soil. All over the world, and particularly in countries with fragile ecosystems such as India, there can be few priorities higher than conserving the health of their soils. Today, the threats to the quality and productivity of our soils come not just from natural causes such as wind or stream erosion, but even more from encroachment by cities, roads, and extractive industries – and, equally, by the demands for soils by the manufacturers of building materials such as bricks and concrete. It takes centuries, even millennia, to build an inch of soil; just a few years to blow it away."