It has become a hot topic of conversation but in a warming world, action on resilience will count more than words.
World Built Environment Forum
11 December 2019
Numerous databases established for the purpose of recording the frequency and severity of natural disasters tell the same story. There has been a marked uptick in severe, climate related events over the past half-century, and the total cost to the global economy of managing the consequences has risen correspondingly. One estimate suggests that, in 2017 alone, the world accrued US$1.245 trillion in disaster-based losses. That figure equates to 1.5% of global GDP.
It stands to reason that resilience has become a preponderant consideration for policymakers. The NATO Summit of December 2019 is unlikely to be commended to the memory of many as perfectly harmonious, but one notable area of accord was the allies' renewed commitment to robust resilience protocols. Nonetheless, such a goal remains almost as hard to capture in concept as in practice.
The UN's official definition of the term reads as follows: "Resilience is the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions." Adopted a decade ago, it is typical of most searchable alternatives: useful as a framing device, but broad to the point of vagueness. Perhaps as a consequence of such inexactitude, the inherently humanitarian character of resilience has not always been foremost in the hierarchy of practitioners' concerns.
Olu EriOlu, Strategic Risk and Resilience Lead at Arcadis, explains: "The term has been around for a long time. It was essentially about people to start with: alleviating poverty and helping those people living in areas affected by disasters to recover." Though the figures are understandably variable, the overarching trend is of a steady decline in deaths caused by natural disasters year-on-year. This fact, when coupled with the increased incidence of disaster events, makes a compelling case for viewing resilience as a lifesaving pursuit.
But EriOlu continues, "As time went on, focus gradually shifted to physical assets; as disasters became more frequent and harder to predict, resilience was raised in boardrooms, and the response was to focus on critical infrastructures – the discussion became asset-centric. What we're seeing now is that the discussion is swinging back to a focus on people and the environment." Such apparent circularity seems apt: the first recorded English use of the word resilience was in Sir Francis Bacon's thesis on the strength of echoes.
The role of infrastructure as an asset of social value was a core theme of the last annual WBEF summit in New York. Isabel Beltran, then Associate Director of Resilience Finance at 100 Resilient Cities, made a standout contribution to the panel on renewable energy: "Infrastructure", she said, "should not only be resilient itself, but should contribute to the resilience of the place where it's located. To what extent do assets really provide positive co-benefits to the community – co-benefits that are needed in the local context – and not exacerbate any ongoing stresses?"
It's a theme taken on by EriOlu: "More and more people are talking about resilience because major events are happening more often. Companies, those that own the affected assets, don't have all the answers. The issue demands a societal response."
The major events he cites are not necessarily naturally occurring. In his memoir, Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, recalled: "A few days after independence, the Prime Minister of Malaysia told the British High Commissioner: 'If Singapore doesn't do what I want, I'll turn off the water supply.'"
"Resilience is the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions."
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
The threat was credible enough to accelerate the formation of the Singaporean Army, but it was also a catalyst in the development of what EriOlu describes as Singapore's "exemplary" approach to water resilience.
"It's an island state with a large population and high water usage, but they're extremely resilient to water loss. For instance, they capture all their wastewater in large diameter sewers, take it to reclamation plants and turn it back into new water – reclaimed water. They also have run-off capacity that captures storm waters in basins that they can then treat for use. They recognise that they have a problem and they've done something about it."
Only through various community engagement schemes was an initially sceptical public won over to the benefits of water reuse. Misgivings regarding sanitary conditions were successfully managed, and historic anxieties surrounding supply and access issues soothed. The goal now is that 85% of the island's needs will be served by reused or desalinated water by 2060. Singapore's status as an emerging global "HydroHub" generates immense national pride – not to mention thousands of jobs, and billions of dollars in value added to an already vibrant economy.
Since 2003, an increasingly waste-conscious population has reduced consumption by 20 litres per-day, per-household. There can surely be few better examples of resilience working for social good than the reliable, sustainable provision of fresh water for a thirsty people.
Singapore's approach to water management doesn't only evidence the reversion back to people-first resiliency, but also an evolving understanding of how preventative resilience works. The aid-based approach that first took root in disaster zones and foreshadowed modern thinking was primarily responsive: a reaction in the wake of catastrophe designed to safeguard against aftershock or recurrence. The asset-focused models that followed were more interested in embedding preventative measures, seeking to predict and mitigate potential causes of stress.
But the potential causes of water scarcity, or any other crisis event, are manifold and their likelihood difficult to predict – particularly in this age of climate emergency. The consequences of such events, on the other hand, are broadly similar, and therefore more easily foreseeable. By adopting what Olu EriOlu describes as a "threat-agnostic approach", focused on consequence rather than causation, Singapore has improved its chances of adapting successfully in times of urgent necessity.
In the UK, the water services regulator OFWAT has driven the agenda forward, requiring water companies to adopt a suite of operational, organisational and corporate resilience measures. Olu EriOlu’s work at Arcadis has focussed on supporting those companies in understanding, quantifying and, ultimately, improving their operational resilience. The development of a consequence-led approach has been central to his thinking.
And as the concept of resilience takes its place as a priority concern at institutional, governmental and societal level alike, the exchange of ideas is set to intensify. For EriOlu, such an energised debate can only yield more solutions: "It's really about understanding the total impact of what we're doing. It could be financial, it could be social or intellectual, or it could be the impact on the environment, but how we understand value is going to change. Once it does, the way we make our investment cases for resilience will change, and the actions that we can take to improve resilience will change also."
“Singapore is an island state with a large population and high water usage, but they’re extremely resilient to water loss. They recognise that they have a problem and they’ve done something about it.”
- Olu EriOlu. Strategic Risk and Resilience Lead, Arcadis