Withstanding the storm: Six considerations to prevent critical infrastructure failure
As the world looks to Glasgow for the COP26 conference on climate change, we’ll be discussing some of the changes our industry needs to make and reflecting on the COP debate on the AECOM Blog. Join the discussion on social media by following us on Twitter and LinkedIn. Find more information in our special COP26 edition of our “Future of Infrastructure” report: https://infrastructure.aecom.com
The driving rain of the hurricane and the falling ash and flames of the wildfire are putting our critical infrastructure to the test as the frequency and intensity of natural disasters increases around the world. When showtime arrives, nobody wants it to fail.
People want to be confident in the resiliency of their critical infrastructure – utilities, transport, emergency services – particularly during extreme weather events. To deliver this, we must spend the seemingly boring sunny days in between reimagining our critical infrastructure so that when extreme weather does arrive, we’re prepared.
At the VERGE 21 conference, a virtual COP26 climate tech event, I was asked to reflect on this in a panel focused on How to Build a Resilient Grid for the 21st Century. All three panelists agreed on the new modeling tools available; the seemingly sudden motivation to make our electricity grids more climate resilient following the onslaught of extreme weather disasters; the nearly overwhelming amount of work and collaboration required to get our critical infrastructure where we need to be; and the fact that we’re already late in doing so. One attendee commented on sea level rise, saying they hadn’t considered the slower, more insidious climate disasters and instead have been focusing on hurricanes, storms and wildfires.
I spoke on the Dumbarton Bridge West Approach + Adjacent Communities Resilience Case Study, a sea level rise vulnerability assessment we recently conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area. While the initial aim of the project was to understand the potential for flooding across a critical transportation corridor, the purpose quickly shifted from protecting the bridge, to reimagining a holistically climate resilient Silicon Valley landscape, including electrical utilities, transportation (roadways, bridges), technology and the neighboring environmental justice community, East Palo Alto.
Our involvement in this project resulted in six key takeaways for resilient infrastructure implementation, which could be employed anywhere in the world, including in your community:
1: Critical infrastructure cannot be protected in silos. Looking to protect one component may weaken or strengthen neighboring infrastructure. Integrated and collaborative planning is key to climate resilience success.
2: Consider your neighbors – and collaborate. Critical infrastructure often sits adjacent to disadvantaged communities. What’s generally thought of as good from a planning-level exercise, may not work on the ground. Public outreach to neighboring and potentially impacted communities provides educational opportunities on both sides, resulting in more robust alternatives.
3: Employ Nature-based Solutions. Drawing on Nature-based Solutions for landscape-level climate resilience is a win-win for the landscape and the assets they are protecting. In East Palo Alto, the development of horizontal or living levees, which are gently sloping vegetated berms rather than traditional levees, would increase flood protection and allow the marshes do their job – accrete sediment and grow over time to absorb sea waters and dampen winter storm wave impacts, while providing wildlife and plants upslope runways to move as water levels rise.
4: Include redundancy for resiliency. Things break down, particularly during extreme weather. We cannot count on 100 percent resilience because so many factors are at play. Systems and people fail. It is imperative to incorporate redundancy and multiple layers of protection.
5: Acknowledge the huge efforts involved. The Dumbarton Bridge planning-level project took two years. It was a complicated puzzle to develop feasible alternatives solutions. Implementation will require massive capital investment, long lead times, and collaboration.
6: Climate change planning may not be flashy, but it’s essential. Advance planning for long-term impacts is not reactionary. Sunny day planning is critical for showtime success.
As the world looks to COP26, let’s take action now. Several new funding options are available, and the opportunities are endless.