By Lou Gritzo, PhD

When catastrophes like storms, earthquakes, fires, or terrorist attacks occur, the first response is automatic: addressing casualties. The second response, nearly as urgent, should be ensuring that critical infrastructure is still in place, starting with power and water.

When power and water systems malfunction, the immediate effects of a disaster multiply in myriad ways. For example, power and water failure can curtail medical service, slow the distribution of food, and create conditions for crime. Communities can endure an arduous return to normal life and economic health.

The best time to strengthen power and water infrastructure is obviously prior to a catastrophe. The goal is to make the infrastructure resilient – resistant to collapse and engineered to recover quickly.

Unfortunately, many communities in the world have power and water infrastructures that are anything but resilient. Mature regions often have aging, under-maintained systems; developing economies struggle to put power and water systems in place in the first instance, and to scale them to support rapid population growth.

So how can governments, businesses, and NGOs help ensure the resilience of critical infrastructure? Moreover, what are the vital common concerns to address, and how can we ensure our resilience goals are achievable (within all constraints) and sustainable? In this technically advanced world, what are the new and innovative ways to get there faster, and stay in a position of strength? That’s our challenge.

To follow are what I call the vitals – the important fundamental considerations for improving infrastructure resilience:

Codes – Governments need to establish, adopt, and enforce regulations that detail the requirements for resilient infrastructure design from an engineering point of view according to local needs. Codes should cover materials, capacities, redundancies and safety factors. Codes must also establish the minimum credentials of anyone who might design, build, maintain or repair critical infrastructure. The final consideration around codes is enforcement: governments must find the expertise, capacity and integrity to ensure codes are met at construction time and monitored throughout the lifecycle.

Several key functions should be specified under the codes:

Hazard AssessmentPower and water infrastructure must be sited appropriately and designed with regard to the specific hazards of the region. There are two challenges here: one is discovering the hazard – say, a hidden fault running through the site of a proposed power plant. The other is properly assessing the risk of such a hazard. Too often, the most optimistic assessment prevails, resulting in infrastructure that can’t stand up to foreseeable events.

Resilience requires that infrastructure be designed to widely accepted, most technically credible hazard assessments. To meet this requirement, governments need the right hazard information (geological, meteorological, etc.) and sufficient technical expertise to properly identify and assess vulnerabilities. Often this requirement necessitates partnering with a spectrum of professionals who have expertise in the full range of hazards and consequences posed to infrastructure. Increasingly, open source models and global collaborations (public/private/academic partnerships) are changing the landscape of hazard assessment. Once the hazard is assessed, the codes specifying materials, capacities, redundancies and safety factors must be applied to suit the defined hazard.

Standards Adoption – Standards are the quality benchmarks to which codes are often written. Just as a football must be a certain size, shape and weight to meet FIFA standards, local fire codes in the United States might hearken to the standards of the National Fire Protection Agency. ISO 24510 is a standard from the International Organization for Standardization pertaining to the assessment and improvement of water and wastewater service. ISO 50001 pertains to energy management. Without standards, codes or other criteria for acceptance can be arbitrary. The process of acquiring and or adopting these standards is becoming increasingly easy with the enhanced availability of information.

Operation and Maintenance Many governments are stronger in overseeing planning and construction of critical infrastructure than in operation and maintenance, which is equally important. Failure to ensure power plants, water systems and wastewater treatment facilities are properly operated and maintained can undermine their resilience over time. The potential effects of improper operation and maintenance make systems more vulnerable, and slower to respond and recover. Here again it’s important that governments have the expertise, capacity and integrity to ensure codes, standards and best practices are followed. People, guidelines and governance must be in delicate balance.

Emergency Response Plans – Resilience includes the ability to rebound, and that requires special preparation. For example, every region, business and perhaps even home should have a flood emergency response plan (FERP) in place before the first raindrop falls. Floods are the world’s most frequent natural hazard, and planning ensures key people know what do in the event of a flood and have the resources in place to execute their duties. FM Global’s research indicates that proper response by a business can reduce financial losses by nearly three-quarters. It’s incumbent on governments to help ensure that businesses as well as public facilities have such plans.

By consciously working toward infrastructure resilience, societies can better ensure uninterrupted power and water supplies, and avoid the devastating humanitarian and property effects of their failure. It’s important for governments and private sector experts to collaborate in this effort, specifically by:

  • Engaging local stakeholders in the resilience-building process.
  • Making the newest technology available.
  • Accessing increasingly abundant public data for risk assessment and management.

While infrastructure can’t always survive the worst-case catastrophe unscathed, the majority of extended power and water interruption is preventable, not inevitable.


Lou Gritzo is vice president of research at FM Global, one of the world’s largest commercial property insurers.

For more on this session and others, please see the full UR2016 Session Topics and Focus Days.