Is Water Infrastructure Prepared for Climate Change Risk?
Thanks to climate change, urbanization and a plethora of other developments, floods are becoming the new normal. In the United States, floods are the most common national disaster and all 50 states have experienced floods or flash floods within the past decade. This costs governments, businesses, and individuals nearly $8 billion in damage every year. Death tolls have recently increased to more than 100 people per year.
Such a pressing issue demands a radical response from everyone, especially those involved in water infrastructure. As global temperatures continue to rise, extreme flooding will more frequently affect concentrated regions where people have built their dwellings on flood plains.
However, risks will expand beyond these areas to once less-susceptible areas as time goes on. And while there are some procedures in place, as well as some prepared infrastructure, the majority of water facilities must make changes and improvements if they're to withstand the torrent that is sure to come.
Typically, the first sign of a rain-induced flood is water-logged streets. Inch-deep puddles turn into ponds and even raging rivers as the deluge carries on. The water makes roadways inaccessible and can even carry cars miles away from where they got stuck.
All this occurs because drainage systems can't drain the incessant downpour fast enough. So cities are beginning to increase funding for cleaning drainage ditches and improving stormwater systems to prevent such catastrophic floods.
In Washington, North Carolina, this means investing millions of dollars in the city's storm drains, widening pipes and repairing failing infrastructure, some of which dates back to the 1950s.
In Malaysia, engineers are finding other ways to combat regular flash floods. Engineers have designed a SMART tunnel, which funnels floodwaters through a lower water tunnel while still allowing motorists to drive on two upper levels. This innovative technology is the first of its kind and has already diverted hundreds of potential floods.
Excessive amounts of rain and subsequent flooding can negatively impact drinking water and wastewater facilities as well.
The plants that are most at risk usually rest in low-lying areas near the bodies of water in which they discharge treated water. When water levels rise above these pumps, they may be unable to drain water quickly enough, increasing the likelihood of plant flooding. In this case, engineers should design pumps that can still function if they get submerged. Moreover, the facility should hire an expert to inspect the pipes on a regular basis.
Facilities should take other precautionary measures as well, such as elevating electrical equipment and having emergency generators ready. Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends placing strong, sealed flood barriers around areas that contain essential equipment. Currently, 60 wastewater treatment plants serving more than four million people would be exposed to flooding if sea levels rose.
If sea levels rose three to four feet higher, 83 plants would likely flood. So there is definitely room for improvement regarding facility flood preparation.
Living with floods
Floods truly are inevitable and, most importantly, unpredictable. While some facilities may be prepared for six feet of water, others aren't even prepared to handle one. And regardless of how prepared they may be, there's still a possibility infrastructure will fail. Engineers are beginning to work around floods instead of trying to face them head-on.
For instance, in the Netherlands, the River Rhine is becoming more susceptible to flooding. This area has experienced heavy urbanization in recent years, putting people's homes — and even their lives — in danger during a deluge. Now, however, people are not allowed to live in the flood plain. When the river floods, it covers empty land and farmland instead of residential plots. This bodes well for farmers, but if their crops fail, the government will compensate them.
In this way, the Netherlands has learned to expect the unexpected and plan accordingly. States, cities, and territories must begin learning these and other lessons as climate change raises the risk of disruption across the world.