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World Wildlife Fund Calls for Better Infrastructure Planning

Emily McKenzie and Nirmal Bhagabati visited on November 17

A team from the World Wildlife Fund addressed faculty, staff, and students at a Dean's Seminar.

Nepal has long been in desperate need of new infrastructure — even before the 2015 earthquake that flattened entire villages. So when six new highways were proposed throughout the small, South Asian country, many people embraced the plans. Project planners and investors, however, did not take into account the construction’s worrisome potential to disrupt local wildlife.

“The environmental impact was not properly considered,” said Emily McKenzie, the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) valuing nature lead. “That’s a big problem.”

Part of Northwestern Engineering’s Dean’s Seminar Series, McKenzie and Nirmal Bhagabati visited campus to discuss ways to to implement infrastructure without adversely affecting nature and wildlife. “Preparing for the Global ‘Infrastructure Tsunami’: The Intersection Between Nature and Sustainable Infrastructure” took place Thursday, November 17.

Nepal is just one country undergoing an infrastructure boom. McKenzie and Bhagabati also cited examples in the Arctic and Myanmar, where major projects are underway that often don’t take local ecology into account. Within the next 20 years, 90 percent of new infrastructure projects will take place in developing countries, which are also the world’s most biodiverse areas. While new roads are important for importing resources, agriculture, trade, and tourism, many building projects are too far along before planners evaluate the environmental impact. McKenzie and Bhagabati agreed that this impact should be assessed the beginning of such projects.

“Around the world, environmental activists have been reactive to projects that are already far down the pipeline,” said Bhagabati, WWF’s lead natural capital scientist. “We need to start working much farther upstream.”

One of the roads in Nepal, for example, will run through Chitwan National Park, which is home to dense tropical vegetation, 68 species of mammals, and 543 species of birds. While removing vegetation could result in erosion, the road could also displace animals or even put them in danger of traffic and poachers.

“A basic understanding of wildlife was not incorporated into the project,” McKenzie said. “Loss of forest could lead to landslides and flooding, which could even undermine the infrastructure itself.”

Bhagabati presented a large infrastructure project in Myanmar as an example. Under military rule from 1962 to 2011, Myanmar was largely closed off from the outside world. Its forests, wildlife, and rivers remained mostly untouched by development. Becoming a democratic state, however, kicked off an “infrastructure tsunami,” including plans for a major highway to connect Myanmar to Thailand.

“Change has been blistering for the past few years,” Bhagabati said. “Accompanying social change has been rapid environmental change and economic development.”

A chance meeting with landscape architecture students from Hong Kong led to a collaboration to understand and determine how to introduce measures that mitigate disruptions to wildlife. The WWF and Hong Kong team used design thinking to find ways to sustain healthy wildlife populations, prevent erosion, and diminish the risk of landslides.

McKenzie and Bhagabati agreed that planners and developers don’t actively avoid assessing environmental impact; instead these audiences do not know where to find the right information. When the WWF and Hong Kong team presented their findings to developers, Bhagabati said they replied: “Where have you been?”

“We need sustainable infrastructure investment, but we also need to value the local people and ecosystems,” McKenzie said. “We need to bring holistic, whole-brain thinking to investors.”