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When infrastructure goes wrong for nature and people

Considering the long-term impacts, risks, and trade-offs of dams, roads, and other projects

Dawei Road cutting around a mountainside

Infrastructure is the backbone of modern civilization. It’s our built environment—the homes we live in, the roads we travel, and the systems that give us plumbing and electricity. But in some cases, the benefits of infrastructure come at a high price. When infrastructure goes wrong—when it’s poorly considered, planned, designed, developed or maintained—we endanger wildlife, wild places, and our own communities.

Bad infrastructure can be as simple as choosing the wrong location. Some areas are just too vulnerable or ecologically important to support large infrastructure development. This could include untouched natural habitats like Bristol Bay in Alaska or the world’s last remaining free-flowing rivers; unique, biodiversity-rich areas like the Amazon, Borneo, or the Congo Basin; or areas already experiencing the impacts of a rapidly warming planet like the Arctic or coastal communities.

We need the right infrastructure, designed in the right way, and set in the right place.

Most categories of infrastructure aren’t inherently good or bad—it’s all about context. Here are some examples.

Dams

The right dam in the right place can provide benefits with minimal negative impacts to the environment. But the wrong dam in the wrong place can do considerable and far-reaching damage. Any infrastructure that changes or diverts significant natural flows of water can have large-scale impacts, potentially destroying wetlands, drying river basins, and leaving communities vulnerable to flooding or drought. Add the effects of climate change such as shifting precipitation patterns and increasing the intensity and frequency of extremes like droughts and floods, and these impacts are even more damaging.

A bad dam can increase water pollution, reduce or block sediment flow, and jeopardize animal and plant life both inside and outside the river. For aquatic animals that migrate, like salmon and river dolphins, the wrong dam can hinder their movement and limit their ability to feed and reproduce, worsening the impacts of increasing temperatures and changing flows due to climate change. Only one-third of the world’s largest rivers remain free-flowing; any infrastructure project that would potentially obstruct these rivers requires careful consideration.

Roads

Roads and other transportation corridors can also have negative consequences when poorly planned or managed. They can divide habitats and migration routes, cause animal-vehicle collisions, bring pollution, and create a pathway for further destruction. When a previously inaccessible area is carved with roads, illegal loggers, poachers, and prospectors will follow. In the Brazilian Amazon, 95% of deforestation takes place within 3.5 miles of a road or navigable river. As we’ve seen this summer, this also increases vulnerability to out of control fires that are increasing in intensity due to rising temperatures, resulting in much larger burned areas as farmers try to clear forest for crops.

Mining, oil, and gas

Harmful infrastructure can also include mining, oil, and gas facilities. At worst these facilities risk catastrophes that can cost human life and wildlife, and profoundly damage ecosystems. At best they still disrupt local communities and habitats, pollute air and water, and contribute to global climate change.

Advocating for good infrastructure

Sometimes the risks of new infrastructure clearly outweigh the benefits. In the past several years, you’ve helped prevent dams on the Mura River, halted oil exploration in Virunga National Park—home to critically endangered mountain gorillas, and kept up the pressure against mining infrastructure in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

But WWF doesn’t want to stop all new infrastructure projects. There are plenty of developments that can benefit our environment: renewable energy facilities, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, and high-efficiency and climate-resilient structures that are planned with ecosystems and wildlife habitats in mind. For infrastructure to be beneficial, planners must consider the long-term impacts, risks, and trade-offs. They must take biodiversity and climate change into account, develop a plan for long-term governance and management, and engage local communities at the earliest possible stages of planning. WWF collaborates with communities, companies, governments, and financial institutions around the world to make sure new infrastructure is done right—in a way that minimizes harm to wildlife, forests, and rivers, and accounts for important benefits nature provides and maximizes benefits to local communities.

Learn more about WWF's work on infrastructure