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Towards resilience and sustainability in infrastructure planning

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By: David Jenkins

In the last three years in Australia, the Black Summer bushfire season and the recent flooding in Northern New South Wales have caused billions of dollars in damages which are still being assessed. 

Much of this damage is accounted for in the loss of private property and livestock, but the damage to infrastructure has been significant. Roads, bridges, communications towers and other public and community infrastructure have suffered damage and destruction and must be repaired or replaced with greenfield assets.

As we consider the rebuilding approach, sustainability must be at the heart of our future infrastructure strategy. It is highly likely, if not certain, that Australia will continue to experience more of these events in the future as the impact of climate change intensifies and results in more extreme weather.

This uncertainty demands a new approach to infrastructure planning which recognises the risks from climate change and puts resilience, future proofing and sustainability at its core. This has been recognized in Western Australia’s first ever 20 year infrastructure strategy, released in August, where sustainable planning is one of the key principles.

The functioning of our economy and our communities requires the optimal performance of our infrastructure. Transport infrastructure, the power grid, water storage and treatment and communications infrastructure are all vulnerable to the extreme weather events we have seen in recent years and are likely to see more of in the future.

In the US, for example, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 released more than 50 billion litres of sewage as storm waters surged, contaminating water systems. In the UK, it is estimated that if only 7% of the country’s rail signaling assets were inundated by water, this would disrupt 40% of passenger journeys.

In times of drought, freshwater infrastructure if highly vulnerable, as seen with the South African city of Cape Town almost ran out of drinking water in 2018. By 2050, extreme heat could ground an estimated 185,000 airline passengers a year around the world, 23 times more than today.

These infrastructure risks are both direct and indirect. A power plant can go offline because it is impacted directly by floods, or – in an indirect risk – it is unable to transmit power because the transmission lines have been impacted.

All this sounds almost apocalyptic, but unless future proofing is at the centre of infrastructure planning the reality is that these type of disruptions will become more frequent and intense. So what can be done?

There is no silver bullet solution, but rather an approach which puts the principal of resilience into early stage planning and factors in alternative or backup strategies, while moving to a set of standards around resiliency which drive benchmarking.

We already have the LEED certification system for green buildings, for example, and there are already moves to adopt a similar system for infrastructure.

At the 2018 Global Infrastructure Initiative Summit, an event held by consulting firm McKinsey, it was agreed that infrastructure planners needed a global body to create resilience metrics which could be used around the world.

The McKinsey summit recommended that this body could then prioritise what it called “climate smart” infrastructure measures and set a standard for best practice, delivering benefits to asset owners and investors.

In a best case scenario, this rating system could create industry accepted standards similar to the Envision sustainability scorecard adopted by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Since it was created in 2012, the Envision framework has been used in over 40 different water-related projects to enhance their social, environmental and economic performance.

The advantage of such a system is that it acknowledges the seriousness of the climate emergency and its impacts on infrastructure, and also delivers a framework which can be an aid and a solution to planning.

Western Australia’s infrastructure approach is laudable, but it is only one part of a successful response. The industry needs global standards as we look to formalise the recognition of the risks we face, and integrate principles of sustainability into all aspects of our future planning.

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