I interviewed Richard Pagett who discussed Climate Change and Supply Chains.
How will climate change affect transportation in sub-Saharan Africa?
Thank you, Dustin, it’s good to be talking to you again. Sub-Saharan Africa is already being hit by climate change in such a serious way. Supply chains and transportation are just two of the things that are going to be affected. With the sub-Saharan Africa, a huge amount of freight is moved between countries—from west to east and across again. The roads are really critical to that level of transportation, and it’s roads that get affected by climate change.
Often, we look at a road and think it’s pretty solid stuff and climate change doesn’t have much of an effect, really. That may apply in, say, America or the U.K., but in Africa, very often the roads are not of the same consistency and structure as we find in western Europe and in the States. Very often, the surfaces are quite fragile, really. We have huge trucks plying the routes from the west to the east coast, and their weight ordinarily creates a lot of potholes and other surface damage to the average African road.
When we add climate change to this—principally in the form of extreme rain—then these potholes open up and can be the size of an SUV, huge things which damage vehicles. I would guess in any four-hour journey we’ll see maybe a dozen trucks—big ones—lying on their side, where their tires have split open, axles are broken, wheels have come off. It’s quite a routine occurrence. There, everything takes days to get fixed, so the guys who drive the trucks have to camp out, and it’s not particularly pleasant for them. Plus, local villagers might decide the shopping has come early and start to help themselves.
So, how does climate change affect transportation in sub-Saharan Africa? Chiefly, it’s got to be about rain, huge amounts of rain. We’re used to seeing the rainy seasons in, say, West Africa, but over time in the past few years, they have become late; they’re not when we expect. They’ve also become intermittent. At the beginning, they start and they stop. We’ve also seen torrential rain of unheard-of volumes hitting the places within just a few hours. And it’s not just like a flash flood; it’s real inundation because there’s just nowhere for the water to go. Typically, there are no drainage systems off the routes; rain just drains away off the road.
What we’re finding now is with extreme rain—very, very heavy rain—that any surface imperfection, any small potholes, any cracks, crevices are being hammered by rain and stones being thrown up by large trucks and big chunks of tarmac being split out and then further trucks creating more and more damage to the surface of the road. We’re seeing transportation delays of quite enormous proportions in sub-Saharan Africa, and that’s not to mention the problems of just transiting; different African countries having the right paperwork in place; going through all the checkpoints, of which there are many; and also people looking to ride on the backs of these trucks for free, which, obviously, is very unsafe.
Climate change is beginning to have quite a profound effect on transportation in sub-Saharan Africa, and there’s no great alternative because air transport—as anywhere in the world, is very expensive, so that’s not going to work. Secondly, the railway systems really aren’t there. Sub-Saharan Africa would benefit hugely from having viable, functional railway systems and networks to move freight around, but that’s probably two decades away. Most of the existing track that was put in place during the colonial era has been taken apart, it’s overgrown, it’s certainly not functional, so the railway system would have to be built from scratch. In the longer-term, I think that’s where investment needs to go, but for now, we rely on roads, and transportation by road, with climate change, is getting more and more perilous and longer and, therefore, more expensive.
How does climate change affect transportation on small islands?
Again, it’s all about the roads, but here, the roads are different; they’re not in the middle of deserts or large countries. By definition, roads around small islands are usually very close to the coast. That means they either get affected directly by storm surges which spread across the road from the sea or they get affected by heavy rain loosening the sides of the islands—the mountains, the hills—which then release boulders and come cascading down and damage the roads. The problem is a different thing, but it’s affecting the roads just the same as in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the islands, there are those that are mountainous islands—so, let’s say the Seychelles—where the roads are very, very close to the coast. They get affected by storm surges; they get affected by sand and boulders being thrown up from the sea; they also get affected by boulders and soil debris being washed down from the hillsides onto the roads, creating delays, damaging road surfaces, and also providing safety issues. In addition to that, because the traffic—the trucks and the buses and private cars—are having to travel relatively close to the sea, they, of course, get lots of spray anyway, and that’s causing a lot of corrosion. One has to look at doing corrosion protection on vehicles, which puts the prices up considerable.
The other thing with islands is not an island which is mountainous or where the roads are close to the sea, but an island, say, like, Tuvalu, where it’s barely a meter high anywhere. There are causeways between small islands and these simply, although there are sea walls, they could be overwhelmed by water, by storm surges, by high tides, even, with winds in the right direction, so there’s a risk there, as well, of islands being cut off.
That’s not to mention, of course, with sea-level rise and climate change that, over time, storm surges will affect more and more of the inland parts of the islands because the basic level of the sea is much higher. We’re starting to see serious cyclones or hurricanes, depending on where we are in the world, which are whipping up the sea, bringing in huge waves, and affecting transportation and road structures. Of course, you have the occasional tsunami, which is not affected particularly by climate change but nonetheless has a relatively similar effect.
How does climate change affect supply chains?
I think if one is relying heavily—and this would apply for both islands and sub-Saharan Africa and other places, in fact—if one has a long supply chain, complicated supply chain with lots of suppliers in that chain, then it only takes one supplier to have a difficulty with climate change either through a heat wave, through sea-level rise taking out a road, through a storm surge, through flooding, then one’s supply is interrupted.
The way to counter this is two ways: either having as short supply chain as possible, but also have many networks. A bit like the Internet, where computers, servers, all over the world are helping our e-mails get to one another, and if one or two go down somewhere, it doesn’t really matter because the Internet self-routes itself so that e-mails get to the destination. I can send an e-mail to my neighbor, but it might go via another town before it comes back.
I think that supply chains are a bit like that. We have to make lots of connections or backups so that we can ensure we always have the supplies when we need them but also to look at shortening the supply chain in the first place. I know that we talk a lot about globalization, but maybe we need to talk more about regionalization, particularly for places like Africa, which have got huge markets in themselves, rather than try to think about reaching out and sending products and produce to western Europe or America or the Far East, but actually looking within their own continent of a billion-plus people and looking at their markets there; they’re shortening the route from the production site to the consumer, and that, too, will have a benefit.
Thanks, Richard. Can you provide a brief background of yourself?
Thanks, Dustin, yes. Obviously, my name is Richard Pagett. I’ve been working on climate change for some time—since 1989, actually. I did the first calculations for sea-level rise and the number of people to be affected in Bangladesh quite a while ago; that was before we started really talking about climate change in any serious mainstream way.
I’ve been working on climate change ever since—in the Caribbean, in the Pacific, throughout Africa—not just sub-Saharan Africa, but throughout Africa—and in Central Asia and the rest of Asia. I’ve probably worked in, I suppose, about 135, 140 countries, so I have a fairly wide appreciation of climate change and how it’s affecting different countries and sectors. There is no doubt that something very, very serious is happening right now, and we’re starting to see some serious effects of climate change in heat waves, droughts, floods, extreme rain, all that sort of thing.
Thanks again for sharing today.
About Richard Pagett