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Environment

Infrastructure disasters in US show how hard development really is

Flickr: EARTHWORKS

Since October 23rd, 111,000 pounds of methane gas has been spewing every hour from a pipeline leak into the atmosphere of Aliso Canyon, California, accounting for 25% of the state’s daily methane emissions. Residents have started wearing gas masks and report a terrible, persistent smell and an oily mist. Dizziness, nosebleeds, headaches and vomiting have been reported.

Since April, 2014, lead has leached into the water supply of Flint, Michigan from corroded pipes. Children in local schools have shown increased lead levels in their bloodstreams. At high levels, lead is a deadly neurotoxin that can stunt and reverse mental growth.

While clearly stemming from different sources, both crises represent similar tendencies--reckless overdevelopment and reckless neglect of crucial infrastructure.

Too often, resource extraction licenses are validated by local, state and federal government and then foreseeable environmental disasters happen.

Too often, governments delay necessary maintenance projects that protect infrastructure and then infrastructure fails.

These events serve as a reminder that sensible planning can avoid disasters. And it’s especially alarming when it happens in the United States, often considered one of the world’s richest nations.

In Flint, the city tried to save money by switching water sources. It started pulling in water from the Flint River, which is very salty. This salt and the powerful chemicals used for decontamination corroded the metal of pipelines, leading to the release of lead.

So had the state prioritized the basic human right of clean drinking water instead of trying to save money in the short term, then this disaster never would have happened.

In Aliso Canyon, the leak could have been quickly contained had the Southern California Gas Company installed a subsurface safety valve, which would have been able to stop the flow of gas.

It wasn’t required by state law, so the company didn’t include it.

Now, Aliso Canyon schools have been shut down and thousands of families are fleeing.

More broadly speaking, this leak highlights the inherent problem of fossil fuels and natural gas, which are main causes of climate change. If countries were more committed to developing renewable energy sources, then the endless rush for more and more dirty fuel sources would gradually end.

In states like Ohio, natural gas companies have become so influential that the government refuses to acknowledge the soaring rise of man-made earthquakes in the region.

Flint and Aliso Canyon, however, also remind us that development is tricky. Oftentimes, it’s a drag for politicians because projects that they spend public money on now may not be finished until many years later. So if it’s a long-term bridge project, a politician won’t be able to point to the bridge in the next election season and say, “Look at what I accomplished. Re-elect me.” Instead, politicians tend to spend money on “quick win” projects that overlook underlying problems and let future politicians deal with them.

Plus, infrastructure projects are disruptive. They may involve road closures, sporadic water and energy supplies or temporary displacement of schools.

Because of this political aversion, infrastructure in the US is crumbling.

This is a problem of governance. And it’s a problem facing more than just the US.

Some developing countries face even more daunting challenges.    

In countries like Haiti and Nepal, for example, natural disasters have devastated infrastructure and efforts to restore water pipelines, roads, schools and hospitals have been difficult.

In Haiti, government corruption and mismanagement of aid funds have stalled progress and basic projects have gone nowhere.

In Nepal, the government has been occupied with civil unrest following the ratification of a new constitution and NGOs have had to carry most of the burden of building and development.

Poverty can’t be eradicated without basic infrastructure and as infrastructure falters and fails, poverty worsens. This is true in the United States as it is true everywhere

Countries around the world need to invest in robust infrastructure projects that provide citizens with basic rights of water, education, healthcare and energy.

The world can only hope that as crises expose the dangers of weak infrastructure, action will be taken and money will be invested.

You can help raise awareness for infrastructure projects by going to TAKE ACTION NOW and making Global Goal:11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, your New Year's resolution.