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Infrastructure Resilience | Ready for Anything

Illustration cropped

Arguably the biggest threat to infrastructure resilience is climate change – invisible yet insidious; incremental and yet unstable.

“I think there’s more of an edginess now, instinctively. We think the climate is getting more unpredictable,” says Arup associate director and global flood resilience leader David Wilkes.

“We’re in a place where we can’t predict the future by looking in the rear-view mirror.”

Istock 24295977 large

Istock 24295977 large

Sandy storm damage, New Jersey

Four years ago Hurricane Sandy, the second-costliest storm in United States history, killed 233 people in eight countries and caused up to £53bn in damage on the US east coast.

A report released in October by Princeton University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department predicts that a repeat of Sandy between now and 2100, was between three and 17 times more likely due to changing storm climates and rising sea levels.

The best estimate for mean global sea level rises is between 200mm and 2m by 2100, based on conservative estimates. And this is not only creating more extreme storms.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution

David Wilkes, Arup

At current estimates about 444M people, or 6% of the global population, live within range of a 10m rise of sea levels.  

And it is “virtually certain” that mean global sea levels will rise in future centuries, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Once you’ve got an idea of that long term view, you can focus on the medium and short term,” says Wilkes. “It’s [flooding] a complex, sophisticated area, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.”

And, around the world, innovation is occurring on the back of climate change and its effects.

Lower Mekong flood modelling

In South East Asia an open source, near real-time flood modelling capability has been developed for the Lower Mekong Water Basin in Vietnam — home to 60M people. Meanwhile, the Netherlands has for decades been preparing for 1 in 10,000 year tidal floods.

Wilkes says there is a lot to be proud of in the UK too, much of it having to do with our varied topography, which causes a variety floods from long and short periods of rainfall. And there are also storm surges to contend with.

“There’s a whole family of types of rainfall flooding. Then there are high tides, storms and sea level rise due to global warming,” says Wilkes.

In Britain we have choices, we can put our more vulnerable assets on the high contours where the risk of flooding is significantly reduced

David Wilkes, Arup

“Unlike low-lying islands in the Pacific or the Netherlands, where the land is flat and vulnerable, in those areas you have essentially a yes/no choice: do we want to be protected, if yes, we need to build walls and buy pumps.

“In Britain we have choices, we can put our more vulnerable assets on the high contours where the risk of flooding is significantly reduced.”  

So you might call the UK “lucky”, geographically, when it comes to climate change. Tell that to those who were fighting the havoc wrought by storms Abigail, Desmond, Eva and Frank last winter.

Improved forecasting

In an in-depth peer review conducted within the Environment Agency, one major finding has been that flood responders needed better forecasting tools, says Agency deputy director Andrew Pearce.

“[In 2015/16] we saw more floods, higher levels, larger response, and the highest political and public expectation to date. And I say ‘to date’ because for the next flood the expectation on the flood risk management community will be even higher,” says Pearce.

Perhaps the biggest learning area is around planning for resilience, rather than resistance, says Pearce.

“What I mean by that is, planning for the exceedance of assets. Rather than building an asset to a certain standard, and saying, therefore, in that area, flood risk is managed.”

Water and telecoms resilience

As part of the National Flood Resilience Review released in September, the government proudly announced it had secured promises from the water and telecommunications industries to make their infrastructure more resilient. And £2.3bn over six years has been promised to safeguard another 300,000 homes.

But Cumbria County Council corporate director of environmental and community services Dominic Donnini saw some of the worst flooding last winter and says engaging the community is key.

He says part of that, includes being open and honest about what cannot be safeguarded.

Departing residents

“In Carlisle, people on Warwick Road… they can’t insure their homes, therefore they struggle to do any work on them – small grants don’t stretch very far. Forty residents upped and left – we can’t even contact them, we don’t know where they are,” says Donnini.

“There’ll be a tipping point, where enough people will leave and we’ll be in economic decline. That’s something we’re going to have to think about. And it’s not solved locally, but nationally.”

Wilkes worries about what this effect might mean on a global scale.

 “That leads me to think about ‘climate change migrants’,” he explains.

You could have a very large population globally, that can no longer live or work because it’s all at risk of flooding

Dominic Donnini, Cumbria County Council

“You could have a very large population globally, that can no longer live or work because it’s all at risk of flooding.”

Wilkes says, whatever the solution, whether it is to build new shelters, or help vulnerable areas adapt, civil engineers will be needed.

 “It might sound self-interested but whatever the choices are, there is a need for qualified, forward-thinking civil engineers to help mankind.

Civil engineers’s role

“It goes back to Thomas Telford, and those early days about using the forces of nature to benefit mankind. It feels as profound as that, to me, over the years ahead… civil engineers will be at the forefront of helping humanity.”

But of course climate change is not the only threat to infrastructure.

Cyber-attacks have become easier to perform as information technology continues to evolve. Amateurs, professionals, governments and companies are hacking into critical infrastructure, primarily in pursuit of financial gain.

It is happening partly because the technology that keeps infrastructure physically running – the industrial control systems – is, in some cases, decades-old.

There is no such thing as 100% secure. It’s not a project, it’s a process

Andrey Nikishin, Kapersky Lab UK

But as Kaspersky Lab UK future technologies projects director Andrey Nikishin says, it’s not about technology: it’s about the users, and instilling a culture of vigilance in an organisation.

“There is no such thing as 100% secure. It’s not a project, it’s a process,” says Nikishin.

Infrastructure must also be resilient against terrorist attacks and again engineers are playing a key role. Infrastructure designers are increasingly using street anything from street furniture design to lighting to deter attacks and mitigate the impact of those which take place. As with climate change and cyber attacks, the threat is constantly evolving.

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