City Conversations: Water Water Everywhere
Event: City Conversations – Water Water Everywhere
Location: The Building Centre, London
Date: 1st November 2016
Alan Travers – BuroHappold Engineering (Chairing)
Gavin Lewis – Commercial Director, Imagecat Inc
Anna Bruni – Senior Engineer at Capita Seconded to the Environment Agency
Roger Falconer – Professor of Water Management, Cardiff University
Gary Grant – Green Infrastructure Consultancy
BuroHappold’s Director of Water Engineering Alan Travers reviews the Happold Foundation’s Water Water Everywhere Conversation
The much-loved quotation from Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’,
“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”
This sums up a common human experience of this most familiar of elements – water. Although it is essential to supporting life, at times of stress, water can be frustratingly alien and hostile. And much of the time that stress is of society’s own making.
I spent much of my early career working on the Somerset levels where fluvial and tidal flooding is an everyday concern to the engineer. Recent flooding events show that engineers can practice mitigation to a high degree but nature and climate can reach extremes when they will overcome the best efforts of the engineer. Translate this to the urban environment and the impacts become far more complex: recent flooding in Bangkok, for example, had a huge impact on the supply chain for electronics worldwide and contingent insurance claims which came back to Lloyds insurance market in London.
Despite being the most basic of human needs, water is probably among the most dynamic components of urban infrastructure, where stress can result from too much or too little of this precious resource. We only really appreciate its impact when things go wrong: and when things go wrong they often go disastrously wrong. Climate change and population growth mean that the risk of disruption to cities must be iteratively measured and acted upon; it is not sufficient to wait and respond.
The contributors to the City Conversation hosted by the Happold Foundation in October 2016 had a very diverse set of calls to action around the topic of water and cities. The issues often flowed out beyond the reaches of the city and even national boundaries. These days the water engineer must deal with far more than pipes and flood defences!
We need a clearer dialogue between stakeholders
How do we translate the concepts of risk, impact and response into creative planning? Anna Bruni contends that there is often a disconnect between the different stakeholders – national government and consultants, agencies and local authorities, experts and community groups – if they are not talking a shared language. There is a language that experts use built around prediction of both ‘likelihood’ that a flooding event might happen and the ‘consequences’ of it doing so. These can be measured and expressed in percentages and frequencies but are often difficult for the layperson to translate into information that allows understanding, and therefore, appropriate decision making. Objectives and priorities need to be agreed and the wrong decisions can be made if the concepts are not properly understood. ‘Residual risk’ is perhaps the most important of these concepts. At what point do engineers (along with all the other stakeholders) decide that the law of diminishing returns means that there cannot be 100% protection. And, as a result, what improvements should we make to the way we respond when major incidents cannot be avoided? Maps and prediction models are a good visual medium for making these issues clearer. But take care with models, says Bruni: they are only as good as the data that is put into them. Which is where the insurance industry can play a role…..
Share the risk….and the data
Gavin Lewis provides a clear explanation of how insurance plays an important role in underpinning the ‘resilience’ not just of cities, but also developing economies. It is a ‘a risk transfer mechanism that provides growth and stability’ – the value to communities is in getting back to a ‘pre-event status’ as quickly as possible, but Lewis sees it as more than physical restitution. ‘Societal resilience’ is his phrase to describe the broader aspects of the impact that insurance can have. But there is still a price to pay and to play a sustainable and effective role insurance companies need to be able to predict their liability accurately and translate this into realistic premiums for those insured. This is where there could be better sharing of data. The insurance industry needs to demonstrate the advantages of providing, for example, better information locked up in the information systems of the built environment stakeholders. And the built environment professions need to investigate the opportunities around information systems such as BIM to increase the knowledge transfer into the business of risk assessment.
Treat water as your friend
Engineers should also be involved in the management of water in a proactive way by making the most of its essential contribution to green infrastructure. Gary Grant recommends a change in attitude in building designers: don’t see water as something that needs to be got rid of as quickly as possible. Instead ‘follow the journey of the raindrop’ from roof top to river and put it to ‘friendly’ work. Green Infrastructure engineering is pretty mature and the benefits are well understood (see Chloroville, our previous City Conversation). What is missing is a willingness to change the standard approach, seize the opportunities and commit funds. (See Chloroville for further conversation on funding green infrastructure). The benefits could not just be a greener, better irrigated city through green roofs and rain gardens etc. but also more controlled run-off from the built environment and less flood risk and pollution.
With an eminent career in water management research, Professor Roger Falconer could choose to share his deep knowledge of tidal power, water supply and flood risk management amongst many other areas of expertise. But the topic he chose to tackle as the most pressing was ‘consumption’: not direct consumption of water within cities, but the impact of western consumer culture on water used for agriculture and manufacture and the destabilising impact on whole societies. For example, the football shirts advertised throughout the world as worn by premiership stars, renewed every season for a new round of sales, has a huge environmental impact on the water extracted for growing, production, milling and dyeing. The impact of water extraction at a scale that modern consumer culture demands can change the geography and social cohesion of whole regions – with a further impact, he argues, on global security. Global warming and climate change may be the environmental threats that we immediately associate with water through drought, flood and rising sea levels. But consumerism may be an even more deadly threat and one that we could, like other man-made crises, do something about. Otherwise this may hang around our necks like the albatross of the ancient mariner.