It goes without saying that infrastructure utility rapidly deteriorates if it’s not adequately maintained, yet many international development projects fail to take this primary consideration into account. Beca’s Principal Project Manager, Kate Emerson, looks at what development infrastructure projects should consider so that donor investment maximises long-term economic and social benefits.

Too often a team flies in, delivers something shiny and walks away leaving local owners and users grateful but puzzled. “It’s pretty, but what happens when it breaks?” Every development partner and project manager has experienced it, but how can we avoid it?

The international development sector has come a long way since delivering fridges to villages without power. (Don’t laugh, it actually happened.) But it’s astonishing how many infrastructure projects are still given the green light without a local maintenance plan. This strategy leaves many well-intentioned investments falling into neglect and deteriorating prematurely.

Historically, this is often exacerbated by poorly designed and constructed solutions which increase the maintenance burdens on clients and communities. If the new road between a remote village and town falls into disrepair poor consequences snowball. Fewer people have access to health clinics. Fewer children go to school. Fatal accidents occur as vehicles collide negotiating potholes. Road runoff contaminates water sources resulting in disease.

To move beyond an inefficient and unsustainable cycle of ‘build-neglect-rebuild’, governments and their engineering teams must take a maintenance-led approach.

Don’t build without a convincing local maintenance plan

Sending teams every twelve months to solve maintenance challenges is expensive and misses the point. Infrastructure is only helpful if a community can sustain it themselves. Infrastructure projects should simply not go ahead until a local maintenance plan is in place.

This requires considerations around:

  • Skills – Development partners shouldn’t walk away until there are local resources on the ground with the knowledge, understanding and capability to maintain infrastructure. This can include the gamut of gentle labour upskilling through to implementation of a major program to develop resources. A great way to build maintenance skills is to involve locals in the construction process itself, which also offers communities the opportunity to eventually move onto other infrastructure builds in the region. The project may take longer to deliver if external contractors are training their local counterparts, and teams sometimes need to return in 12 months to support local resources in their first round of major maintenance. But developing a local maintenance capability adds value by creating new jobs, increasing infrastructure utility and extending asset life, maximising an investment’s return.
  • Supplies – There’s no easy solution to providing access to maintenance supplies. On islands with one flight a week or ship-only access, waiting on parts often delays important maintenance. Yet stockpiling parts in a hot and humid shed is not the solution either. The solution is to start, if one does not already exist, a small-scale local industry to manufacture parts or supplies. In the meantime, maintenance plans must leave local owners with clarity over when and where to order parts.
  • Funding – Infrastructure asset owners, whether they are governments, subnational governments or communities, should ensure the cost of labour and supplies in ongoing maintenance is factored into the project costs from the start
  • Governance – Sometimes this involves working with local institutions to provide support to strengthen local systems for operations and maintenance, which could involve policy reform to improve systems and approaches.
  • Climate – Maintenance plans must also consider challenges associated with maintenance in a remote, tropical environment. When infrastructure is exposed to heat, humidity and rain it is prone to higher rates of failure and can degrade more rapidly than in temperate geographies. For example, a maintenance plan that works in Sydney isn’t appropriate for smaller islands in the Pacific.
  • Gender equality and social inclusion – Women and men have unique uses for infrastructure and benefit from it in different ways. By understanding these differences, we can create diverse and inclusive supply chains that support the long-term maintenance and operations of infrastructure which in turn provides a more resilient infrastructure ecosystem.

Design and construct with maintenance in mind

The enduring economic and social dividends of sustainable infrastructure projects across the Indo-Pacific will only be fully realised if infrastructure is adequately designed and constructed from the onset. New infrastructure should make the most of smart, innovative design that both meets user requirements and considers local maintenance constraints. Designs must consider how infrastructure will be built, operated and maintained within the unique environmental context well before construction commences, allowing engineers to identify opportunities to keep maintenance obligations manageable for the local workforce.

This goes beyond avoiding poorly designed and constructed solutions, which significantly increase the maintenance burden. Designers should also try to:

  • Reduce complexity. In Australia, a water treatment plant will nearly always be built with the latest technology. New installations are run by computer and are data driven. They can be monitored from three states away and can be maintained remotely. It’s great functionality, but if that delicate technology is unsuitable to tropical conditions, or if the local workforce lacks the skill to repair it, this type of functionality shouldn’t be specified. Any unnecessary complexity should be pared back if it increases maintenance burden.
  • Select durable, local materials. Ideally, materials should be robust and resistant to corrosion, available locally and familiar to local tradespeople. Community consultation would be beneficial in making the right selection.
  • Design out maintenance. For example, it’s worth increasing the design standards of heavy-duty pavements, such as airport runaways and taxiways or port container terminals, to prevent slab reinforcement from cracking or corroding prematurely.
  • Leverage the local environment. It’s often possible to minimise operating costs and reduce maintenance requirements by harnessing natural environmental features, such as waterfalls and land elevations. For example, designing a water treatment plant to be positioned at the most elevated source enabling gravity supply significantly lowers construction and operating costs by reducing or eliminating the need for pumping.

Tailor infrastructure delivery to local requirements

Infrastructure projects that integrate training of local contractors must consider the local reality. Some workers on site have never worn shoes, let alone safety boots. Others have never had easy access to drinking water before. External contractors sometimes get impatient when they have to repeat safety briefings every day or stop people from bathing in dish washing water. Site managers need to consider and respect the very different experiences of local communities.

For development projects, treating local workers with care, respect and consideration is equally important to meeting time and budget constraints. If the community is treated poorly, the damage done can be irreparable. Development projects are not charity and those coming in to build them are not giving handouts. Each project is an opportunity to collaboratively grow and develop a local economy.

Infrastructure supports domestic and international trade and underpins basic health, education, water, energy and communications services. But an infrastructure development project should and must aim to deliver more than new construction. It should also have a robust, local maintenance plan that will itself increase the productive capacity of the economy by creating jobs, boosting skills and making communities self-sustaining. Which is why infrastructure projects need to not only consider but ensure infrastructure assets are designed to local requirements to provide long-term economic assurance for communities.