Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Managing risk in an era of shifting assumptions

Times Online (UK) has an interesting article by Alistair Dale of Capita Symonds: Residual risk management - a topic that does not generate much interest in the media. It is, however, a discipline that will dramatically affect our ability to adapt to the consequences of climate change. Last summer's floods provide clear evidence that, without decisive action, climate change will leave future generations increasingly subjected to lengthy periods of hardship.

Traditionally the approach has been to look for “quick fixes” - large projects literally to plug the gaps - but we are entering an era where the cost and lifetime of such schemes will make them unfeasible. Accordingly, Sir Michael Pitt's interim review of last summer's flooding hints that there will be some significant recommendations to overhaul existing practices.

Designing infrastructure that can resist increased wind speeds, wave heights, rainfall and flood water depths induced by climate change would create unsustainable economic burdens. The fallback position is to prepare for the future by contemplating how systems might fail when they are subjected to extreme forces of nature. This is residual risk management - and the challenge is to introduce complementary policy, process and practices that can deliver affordable infrastructure that is not only safe now but also for a landscape 100 years hence.

…High level policy and planning guidance is setting the agenda for step changes in the response to sustainability, flood risk management and climate change. However, there must be concern that there is a huge inertia associated with the way people view the world - the problems posed to coastal areas by a 1m rise in sea level over the next 100 years require radical restructuring of coastal communities that simply won't be achieved through application of existing policies and practices.

Climate change isn't an issue that can be easily escaped as it lies at our doorstep: drainage systems aren't designed for climate change conditions, and replacing the underlying sewers would be horrendously expensive. We need to consider other ways of addressing the emerging problems. This involves understanding what fails, how it fails and what we can do to minimise the consequences when it does fail. Solutions to these problems require a new approach based on the analysis of computer simulations. Using the latest software it is possible to generate high-quality predictions of the hazards posed by floods, and test a wide range of responses and adaptation strategies….

Drainage of the old school, via Wikimedia Commons

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