Algae near a Toledo water intake crib in Lake Erie. The bloom caused the city’s water supply to be shut off for three days. Photograph: Haraz N Ghanbari/AP
Article by Mike Delzingaro, Guardian Professional
Changing climate means super storms like Sandy are no longer once in a lifetime. The technological solutions to protect cities are there, they just need planning and investment.
Two years after Hurricane Sandy slammed into the mid-Atlantic and northeastern US in late October 2012, the region is still recovering from the 159 lives lost and the estimated $65bn in damage. This anniversary and the continued reclamation work are a reminder to cities around the world that urban resilience requires long-term planning and continuous investment if we are ever to avoid repeating history.
This new reality of our changeable climate means that, sadly, situations like Sandy are no longer once in a lifetime events that affect a handful of geographies. Urban resilience is a global issue that requires a consistent and sustained response.
The cost of flood damage to coastal cities is expected to top $1tn per year by 2050. These predictions – combined with population growth, rapid urbanisation and increasing energy inefficiencies – should provide sufficient motivation to seek out long-term solutions and yet we are still falling short when it comes to implementing change.
But do we, and do the businesses and governments responsible for protecting us, have what it takes to monitor and prepare for these extreme events?
The short answer is yes. Solutions are out there; we do not need to wait for innovation or technology to catchup to address these problems. The frustrating part is that, while we already have many of the components needed to build resilient operating systems in cities around the world, we must do a better job in terms of planning and investment.
Taking a closer look at what technology is already available, one form of preparation that is often overlooked is monitoring and tracking. Monitoring is used to address two key areas: daily water quality and warning on weather changes. While monitoring systems can make sure our water is clean on a daily basis, they can also provide information as to when a disaster is likely to hit.
It’s obvious that the faster we identify where storms are likeliest to hit the hardest, the better we can target efforts to prevent and respond to damage. Our ability to do so depends on whether or not we upgrade early warning capabilities. The technologies that link sensor networks, large-scale data analysis and communications systems to decision-makers with information they need are within our reach, we simply need to invest in them.
The private sector is at the forefront of innovation, providing technology that allows for early warning systems, upgraded infrastructure with built-in analytics that can track developing situations, and risk assessment. Yet, this technology is useless without the support of partners such as governments, municipalities, NGOs and communities. The success of modern cities’ resilient operating systems depends on partnerships. Such solutions will manage and monitor risks more effectively, helping to save money, property and lives.
Instances of unpredictable extreme weather in recent years have shown us where cities have done well and where they can (and are) doing better. Leading up to the Sandy storm, through the use of analytical instruments and sophisticated monitoring equipment, teams were able to track the storm and plan and prepare for recovery efforts.
New York monitored water level and water quality changes in key waterways and automatically transmitted the information in real time using an automated system. This system made it possible for local governments to track Sandy’s impact reliably without putting responders in harm’s way. Similarly, during and immediately after the storm, teams stockpiled and distributed dewatering equipment to pivotal infrastructure caught in the hurricane’s projected path. The powerful pumps ran without electricity, moving massive amounts of water through temporarily installed piping systems and minimised flood damage.
Monitoring systems can also be used to track and control other types of natural events that can impact an entire population; the city of Toledo, in the northeastern US, hit the headlines in early August after a harmful algae bloom in Lake Erie, which is the source for the city’s water supply.
The blue-green algae that bloomed naturally produced a toxin that attacks the liver, which resulted in the shutoff of Toledo’s water for three days. Although these types of events have been successfully managed in the past by water utilities, the magnitude of this incident was unique.
The probability that something similar will happen again is increasing due to weather implications from climate change and man-made events, such as agricultural run-offs. The city is already preparing for the algae bloom to occur again and is investing in improvements to the existing monitoring so they can detect future situations earlier.
Companies have developed extremely sensitive and accurate water quality monitoring systems that are deployed in lakes, rivers, and oceans to monitor algae levels, as well as checking other important water quality parameters such as dissolved oxygen, temperature and pH. As we see increased preparations to minimise the impact of a hurricane or a flood, we can also build broader resilience around other types of natural disasters and occurrences.
Extreme weather events, by nature, are unpredictable. The choices we make, however, do not have to be. If we can tackle and deploy existing technology to help us from major economic and social losses, why can’t we combine efforts to build funds and investment in solutions that can better prepare our cities to expect the unexpected?
Note to readers:
Mike Delzingaro is vice president of Dewatering Solutions at Xylem Inc, a global water technology company focused on providing solutions to some of the world’s biggest water challenges.
This article has been published by the Guardian on 3 October 2014.