Risk understanding is key to improving infrastructure resilience

Large-scale infrastructure programmes in the UK can’t afford to ignore calls from the World Bank Group for more investment to mitigate the risks posed by climate change, says Jacqueline Hughes.

Jacqueline Hughes, senior risk analyst at risk management consultancy, Equib.

The World Bank Group has published a report calling for more investment to improve infrastructure resilience and mitigate the increasing risks associated with climate change – but are project managers doing enough to address this?

Among its key findings, the report estimates that $90 trillion needs to be spent globally by 2030 on building and updating infrastructure, with about 60% required in the developing world.

While climate change is obviously an inherently global issue, large-scale infrastructure programmes in the UK can’t afford to ignore the risks posed by climate change. With global heating causing more intense rainfall and a continued rise in sea levels, more investment is urgently needed to improve the resilience of existing infrastructure and build more resilient structures for the future.

To address this, the Environment Agency has recently published a Draft National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England. This strategy also highlights the need for greater resilience in order to mitigate climate change risks. 

However, as many project managers know, it can be difficult to secure buy-in to build in such resilience and set aside the contingencies required to protect critical infrastructure from disaster risks such as flooding.

Project managers must ensure that stakeholders understand the whole-life cost of the project and aim to address risks at an early stage in the design process. When setting objectives for the project, each individual risk factor should be considered, including those associated with extreme rainfall or record-breaking summer temperatures. By planning ahead, designs can be amended at an early stage, whereas later on the cost of add-ons or re-works could be significant.

It is also important for project managers to prepare a detailed cost-benefit analysis, taking account of each proposed risk mitigation strategy. For example, designers may be proposing to use a more robust material to improve the structure’s resilience to flooding post-completion.

The cost-benefit analysis carried out by the project manager should consider the pre-mitigated risk - ie; the likelihood and cost of any damage that might be caused in the event of a flood – and the post-mitigated risk – ie; the likelihood and cost of damage using a more-resilient material. Understanding the reduction in the pre and post-mitigated risk position and taking into account the cost of using a more-resilient material, the project team will be in a position to decide whether the more robust material is worth the investment.

In a recent speech by Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, he described an example of significant economic value being protected as a result of investment in infrastructure resilience. Estimates suggest that a storm surge on the east coast of England in 2013 could have caused £37bn in economic damage to local businesses and homes, not to mention a potential loss of life, had it not been for investment in flood defences. Such calculations provide compelling evidence that investment in climate change resilience is worthwhile.

Key to securing buy-in for investment in infrastructure resilience is greater risk understanding. If stakeholders understand the impact that climate change risks can have, both during the build and after, the easier it will be for project managers to secure funding for materials and methodologies, which will deliver better whole-life outcomes.

Jacqueline Hughes is a senior risk analyst at risk management consultancy, Equib. 

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.