Integration, security now key to Africa’s infrastructure

25 August 2021 – Continental integration has long been a dream for Africa but progress has been slow. Integration and security are now key to Africa’s further infrastructure development.

Continental integration has long been a dream – the idea of a railway line stretching from Cape Town to Cairo was first raised in 1874.

Today, this vision is moving closer to realisation with the Trans African Highway comprising nine highways. Despite the expected surge in economic development encouraging investments in roads and railways across the continent, progress has been slow due to climatic conditions and conflicts.

Security a risk to be managed  

A study of large infrastructure projects in East Africa, for instance, recently highlighted that security has become a major risk to be managed. The research noted that Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia all have individual historical legacies of insecurity, with at least one active separatist or insurgent movement currently operating – using violence to express grievances and gain political attention. This is also evident in recent attacks by Islamic State-linked militants in northern Mozambique which disrupted the multi-billion-dollar Total SE LNG project.

Insecurity can also arise from historical spatial planning legacies and inequalities as in the case of South Africa’s experience of ‘insurrection’ and looting in July 2021. The disruption included the torching of shopping malls and the closing of the critical N3 highway linking the port city of Durban with the regional powerhouse of Gauteng. Many consumers were stranded without supplies and businesses in some areas closed.

The study went on to recommend that project developers pay more attention at an early stage to the “broader and more interconnected impacts” that could threaten sustainability. They were urged to look beyond their projects’ immediate location for these threats, and also to explore and develop mitigation measures. Steve Bartels, a partner and principal technologist at SRK Consulting notes that this approach to risk management is gaining traction with large mining companies who aim to assess the risks from human and natural processes to the sustainability of projects.

The theme of security, according to SRK Consulting partner and principal environmental consultant Darryll Kilian, applies to various infrastructural elements – from roads and rail lines to ports and energy networks. As this study suggests, however, the answer is not just providing better protection for these installations; rather, it is to take that broad and strategic view to ensure that the value to be gained from infrastructure is effectively shared by diverse stakeholders.

Integration key to infrastructure

“The philosophy behind infrastructure planning has changed significantly in recent decades,” said Kilian. “While the colonial model was to provide often ‘single-duty’ infrastructure for export of raw materials, the modern approach is to prioritise integration so that infrastructure serves multiple purposes – acting as a deliberate stimulus for other economic activity.”

This comes through in the policies of the African Union, Southern African Development Community, and other regional trade blocs, he pointed out. The AU’s Program for Infrastructure Development Program (PIDA), for instance, supports projects which promote an integrated, multi-sectoral corridor approach. This in turn aims to foster development that is employment-oriented, gender-sensitive and climate-friendly – connecting urban, industrial hubs with rural areas.

“What is required, then, is a strategic plan that can see beyond the narrow focus on an individual project,” Kilian said. “It is no longer enough for a developer to build a rail line purely to transport mineral ore or agricultural products to the nearest port; that rail line – if well-planned in the context of other priority sectors – could create a multiplier effect that widens and deepens local development.”

“The Nacala Rail Corridor from Moatize in Tete Province in Mozambique to the Port of Nacala is a good example of how a rail network funded by a major global mining company can create opportunities for the transport of people and general freight,” says Bartels.

Multi-purpose rail infrastructure can help promote development. Image credit: Tembinkosi Sikupela on Unsplash

In addition, the cooperation of countries on multi-national projects is essential.  The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Blue Nile River illustrates the potential for conflict between countries sharing water resources if there are no binding agreements. “The Egyptian and Sudanese governments have voiced concerns regarding water shortages and safety caused by the dam,” says Kilian.

The question of vulnerability

Returning to the question of vulnerability, he noted that security of supply was of equal concern for electrical transmission grids. In a recent project that SRK Consulting conducted for the Southern African Power Pool, for instance, it was clear that the authorities wanted to reduce the disruption that a single break in the network would cause.

“If one high-voltage power line goes down due to a natural disaster or other disruption, an entire region of a country could be affected,” he said. “Back-up plans are therefore important to ensure alternative routes for services, products and people, and this is easier to achieve if multiple infrastructural channels are developed in an integrated fashion.”  For example, in January 2021 Cyclone Eloise caused major disruptions to the energy supply in South Africa when powerlines connecting Cahora Basa Hydroelectric Scheme in Mozambique to its national power grid were affected.

Strengthening power grids will boost energy security. Image credit: Jason Blackeye from Unsplash

According to Bartels, a weakness in the current regional transport network was already demonstrated by the extensive use of road trucks to ferry copper from Zambia and the DRC to the Port of Durban.  The lack of a reliable rail link to transport copper to the market puts pressure on existing infrastructure, including roads, bridges and border posts.  “The recently opened transboundary Kazungula Bridge over the Zambezi River offers an alternative regional road transport route between Botswana and Zambia avoiding bottlenecks at the Musina/Beitbridge border post,” he says.

As in the rest of the world, infrastructure in Africa is highly susceptible to cyberattacks that can cripple trade and undermine confidence. This was recently experienced by Transnet in South Africa, which disrupted cargo movement and necessitated the diversion of ships from national ports.  “This event proved very disruptive as the Port of Durban is a vital hub for the Southern African region,” says Bartels. In order to mitigate the anticipated increase in such incidences across the continent, it will be necessary to secure digital platforms at maritime ports.

Maritime ports need to protect their digital systems from cyberattack. Image credit: Alex Duffy from Unsplash

SRK is an independent, global network of over 45 consulting practices on six continents. Its experienced engineers and scientists work with clients in multi-disciplinary teams to deliver integrated, sustainable technical solutions across a range of sectors – mining, water, environment, infrastructure and energy. For more information, visit www.srk.co.za

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