Flooding – Keeping the power on!

by Tony Kingham, Editor, World Security Report

One of the recurring themes that comes up repeatedly at our Critical Infrastructure Protection and Resilience events in Europe and Asia, is that whilst the threat of terror attacks on our critical national infrastructure is an ever present danger, the reality is that for most of us, some sort of natural disaster like flooding, is far more likely to affect our daily lives than a terrorist attack.

Indeed back in 2000 my own home, which at the time was 125 years old, flooded for the first time and the local church which has been around since the 14th Century was also flooded for the first time.

The immediate cause, we were told, was a very biblical 40 days of rainfall, which we had of course noticed, combined with an exceptionally high tide. Being 20 miles inland with only a small stream running through the valley, the high tide issue came as a bit more of a surprise.

Other factors probably added to this “exceptional” event such as the changing of river courses, silting of rivers, greater numbers of houses using outdated Victorian drainage systems etc. but the experience really just confirmed what we already believed and that was that something is changing in our weather system and the local environment, and not for the better.

The UK’s Met Office has recently reported that global temperatures are set to rise more than one degree above pre-industrial levels and another report published in Nature, has now officially confirmed that global warming is changing global weather patterns and extreme heat waves and heavy rain storms are happening with increasing regularity worldwide.

Prof Stephen Belcher, of the UK’s Met Office said in delivering his report: “This is the first time we’re set to reach the 1C marker and it’s clear that it is human influence driving our modern climate into uncharted territory.”

We have surely reached the point when even the most ardent climate change deniers will struggle to maintain their stance, and even if they continue to blame the changes on other causes, they surely can’t deny that whatever the cause, doing nothing is no longer an option.

When it comes to rainfall, the equation is really quite simple; higher temperatures mean increased evaporation of the oceans, more evaporation means more cloud and water in the atmosphere and more cloud and water means more storms and rainfall. Add to that the melting ice caps and permafrost and you have a future with increasing extreme storms and flooding.

So what do these changing weather patterns mean to our critical national infrastructure. Well my own experience of what was really only localised flooding shows how vulnerable our national infrastructure really is. Power to the whole village was out for some time, the phone lines as well and the local emergency services were simply overwhelmed.

It also demonstrated the interdependence of all the infrastructure services that we depend on for our daily lives.

According to a report by the UK Parliament – The highly connected nature of NI is a major concern for sector operators trying to improve its resilience. The two main forms of interdependence are Cascade Failure and Single Point of Failure. Infrastructure components often exhibit a chain of dependencies. For example, water companies rely on energy companies for their power supplies and both sectors need communications to coordinate the functioning of their assets. Failure of one component in such a chain will thus propagate to dependents, a process dubbed ‘Cascade Failure’.

Since neither the extent nor complexity of chains of dependence is well known, cascade failure may represent a significant threat to infrastructure. When a number of components are dependent on a single asset, or type of asset, this becomes a Single Point of Failure (SPF). In this sense Regional Convergence, where multiple infrastructure components are located in the same area, is a form of SPF, and constitutes a risk to resilience by magnifying the impact of localised disasters.

Simply put, if the power goes off, so too might the water treatment and fresh water pumping stations, gas distribution system, phone lines, ISP’s, supply chain distribution for fuel and food etc.
Electricity sub stations in particular are a vulnerable part of the power grid system and CNI.