Making cities resilient to extreme weather

THE frequency of natural disasters has highlighted the need for cities to be better prepared for such events or face exorbitant losses not just in monetary terms but also in human lives. In 2012, the costs of such damages totalled US$160 billion worldwide.

Cities are extremely vulnerable to natural disasters because of their dense populations. Many would still remember Hurricane Sandy which hit northeastern US just seven months ago, causing US$50 billion in damage, mostly in the New York Metropolitan area. The super storm caused 285 deaths and left eight million without electricity supply. In New York City, stock market trading was suspended for two days.

Closer to home, heavy rains in Thailand in 2011 flooded the northern, northeastern and central parts of the country, bringing its industrial zones to a standstill. The World Bank estimated the damages at US$45.7 billion.

"They've cleaned up now but the key point here is that some enterprises have expressed doubts about investing in Thailand. That's something which the government really has to check because that would affect your GDP and employment. If the environment is resilient, companies will be ready to invest further," says Dr Roland Busch, a member of the managing board of Siemens AG and CEO of the group's infrastructure and cities sector (I&C).

And it looks like extreme weather will be the norm rather than the exception in the future due to climate change as a result of global warming.

"In the past, one year out of hundreds, you have a major disaster, but now, it's one out of 15. That means frequency goes up as does the impact," says Busch.

Furthermore, rapid urbanisation is set to lead to higher damages if measures are not taken to improve the resilience of cities.

Well, this is where Siemens' I&C's offering of sustainable technologies comes in. The unit boasts a portfolio comprising integrated mobility solutions, building and security systems, power distribution equipment, smart grid applications and low- and medium-voltage products — all aimed at making metropolitan centres and urban infrastructures worldwide sustainable with the right tools to withstand the onslaught of extreme weather.

I&C is one of the German engineering conglomerate's four business segments, with the others being industry, engineering and healthcare. The I&C sector is a relatively new unit set up in 2011 with a focus on cities, identifying them as a key future growth market.

Speaking to visiting journalists in New York City, Busch presented the preliminary findings of a report on resilient infrastructure, based on a study by engineering firm Arup, Regional Plan Association (RPA) and Siemens. RPA is an independent urban research and advocacy organisation, working to improve the infrastructure, sustainability and quality of life in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan region.

The report will focus on energy, transportation and water technologies.

"The idea is to minimise disruption, to restore services quickly — because we can't avoid natural hazards – [as well as] how to get there, cost-benefit studies … New York City is a case study," Busch says.

He explains that one way cities could lower the risk from various hazards is to improve their resilience. This can be done by putting in place robust infrastructure and institutions. While little can be done to avoid natural hazards, cities can invest to make their infrastructure more resilient.

Busch offers that by investing in robust infrastructures, cities will be able to bring down the quantum of damages from extreme weather. For example, by investing to make the New York Metro area's grid more resilient, the city can reap benefits in terms of damage reduction and efficiency gains.

According to Busch, in a proactive scenario, full implementation of all suggested actions would entail an investment of US$3 billion. However, over a 20-year period, the city stands to reap efficiency gains of US$4 billion while reducing damage cost by US$2 billion.

"You will spend upfront a little bit more but later, the other benefits, for example energy efficiency, reduced CO2 consumption and added security, will kick in," he says, adding that sometimes the benefits show up elsewhere, hence the need to look at the benefits from a holistic point of view.

Compare this with a reactive scenario — react as and when things happen — in which any disruption to the power grid could see losses up to US$3 billion over 20 years.

"The key point is to make resilience as one of the requirements from the very beginning by making (it) an integral part of planning," Busch adds.

He says given that any infrastructure, once completed, has to be used for years, even decades, it is very important to plan well from early on. Also, to leverage on investments, intelligent automated infrastructure is key, be it for power, utility or transportation grids.

"We can't prevent natural disasters, but with our knowledge and our technologies, we can better protect our infrastructure. Particularly in difficult economic times, cities have to invest efficiently while minimising risks and making them calculable. Resilient infrastructure is not an option but a must," he adds.

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of May 13-19, 2013.

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