Serving in mid-April as a judge for the Infrastructure 100 list of the world’s best infrastructure schemes, I was persistently reminded that projects are about much more than construction.
Tasked to select two outstanding schemes in Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent in a total of 10 categories, the Infrastructure 100 judges invariably found themselves debating the social and economic impact of the schemes under review as much as their technical characteristics.
The issue is particularly resonant in a region with a combined population that is more than 40 per cent of the world total and is home to the majority of the poorest people on earth. The absence of decent roads in most sub-Sahara African countries is not just an inconvenience; it’s an insuperable impediment to development that makes eliminating poverty effectively impossible.
That is why the debate about the Infrastructure 100 invariably focused on projects that were transformational, even if they were at an early stage, rather than incremental. But some were so obviously beneficial that they had to be shortlisted. They include India’s KG-D6 gas development and east-west pipeline, the largest integrated energy project every attempted in India. It will produce 50 per cent of the country’s natural gas. South Africa’s Project Mthombo centres on a new oil refinery. What clinched its place in the Infrastructure 100 was that it will create almost 20,000 permanent jobs in the Eastern Cape, one of South Africa’s most deprived regions.
There was a clear divide between the countries of the Gulf and the other countries. In poorer regions, the economic case for big infrastructure projects was invariably compelling. But the prospects of them going ahead were frequently blighted by the shortage of money. That is why the Gulf produced the largest number of nominated projects. They include the Burj Khalifa, the tallest artificial structure on earth, and the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast.
Both are complete. The Infrastructure 100 also includes projects at an earlier stage of development. The Qatar-Bahrain Causeway was nominated because it will change the way people think about transport and logistics in the Gulf. The judges reached the same conclusion about the 327-kilometre highway between Mafraq, close to Abu Dhabi City, to Ghweifat on the UAE’s border with Saudi Arabia and the 440km Haramain railway linking Mecca and Medina.
Energy infrastructure projects are compelling because they entail profound choices. You can’t quickly change power stations from coal to gas. For some developing countries, power stations have to be developed on massive scale. The Infrastructure 100 includes the 4-gigawatt Mundra coal-fired power station. Environmentalists might flinch at the idea of hydrocarbon-based plant of such size. But new technology to cut and capture carbon emissions will be used. And India desperately needs the power.
How to produce the energy poor countries need without adversely changing the global climate is one of the hottest topics in global infrastructure and it expressed itself in the discussion about Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) programme.
Construction contracts have just been awarded and power production is not due until the end of this decade. But the judges concluded that the UAE’s atomic energy initiative may prove to be one of the most important infrastructure projects of our times. It is the Arab world’s first nuclear power scheme and a model for others to emulate. Because South Korean companies have won the contract to build them, ENEC nuclear power stations will help Seoul become a future major player in the nuclear power industry. Visionary projects such as this will change the world and not just Middle East.
But what makes a project great? There may be no definite answer to this question, but I would love to hear your views.
For more information about the Infrastructure 100, see www.infrastructure100.com.