Pre Conference Forum


Are there any practical solutions?

It takes a Nobel Prize-winner, the physicist Hannes Alfven, to so phlegmatically stigmatize our hopes for vision of an earth where “no acts of God can be permitted and everything happens according to the blueprints”[1]. Even if such a place may ever arise, neither our past nor our contemporary experience, provide evidence of such a utopia reaching us soon. On the contrary, society has repetitively witnessed natural disasters so unprecedented in nature and intensity that have therefore been termed “Black Swan Events”.

With an official death toll of 230,000 the Haiti earthquake of 12 January 2010 serves as the most recent dramatic reminder: as highly improbable as it may be, a physically possible large-scale failure can occur sooner or later anywhere in the world bringing immense economic loss. But when they occur in developing countries they are invariably followed by humanitarian calamities of demonic dimensions. A plethora of major events worldwide confirm this reality: the 1976 Tangshan (China) earthquake and the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami disaster were accountable for the loss of 240,000 human lives each; the death toll of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake rose to 80,000; the 1970 great Peruvian earthquake killed 70,000 people; the 1990 Western Iran quake claimed 50,000 lives and left over 400,000 homeless. Although the list is merely indicative, the population of victims is, unfortunately, still rising whenever such events take place.

This observation has led many to interpret this kind of tragedies less as the results of geophysical extremes and more as functions of a (mis-aligned) social order (Hewitt, 1983[2]) which correlates disaster proneness with societal and economic fragility. Bilham (2010)[3] most illustratively describes collapsed buildings in Haiti as already doomed during their construction –a metaphor to demonstrate the low construction quality which is characteristic of several disaster-prone regions.

Even if new infrastructure could be constructed to be immune to disasters (a knowingly utopic scenario given –above all– the resource constraints), the vast amount of existing networks would be operating at sub-standard –if not unsafe- service levels. According to several directives, scientific reports and industry analysts, action must be taken to harden infrastructure systems in order to handle the needs of the future and be ready for the unknown events that may occur. Yet, no matter how strong the structural design and construction, the response of a structure is accompanied by a high degree of uncertainty: performance is time-dependent. Indeed, age, loading history and fluctuations of environmental conditions (among others) influence both the structural robustness and the response (and hence structural or non-structural damage) during an extreme event that may occur several years or decades after construction.

Infrastructure systems are amongst the first being impacted and there is currently no doubt that their failures can have direct impacts on the quality of life as well as economic growth and viability. At the same time, the rapid expansion of urbanized regions is unavoidably pursued by the need to enlarge the capacity of infrastructure (the population of people in urbanized regions will rise from the 51% now to nearly 65% in 2050) at a time when the world strives to secure infrastructure maintenance funding. Truly, to continue to grow, the world needs to invest in new infrastructure—and it is not keeping up. According to recent research, current infrastructure spending is $2.5 trillion to $3 trillion a year, far short of the $6 trillion needed to meet average annual demand to 2030 (McKinsey 2013). The need to renew existing infrastructure is also acute, but doing so in the conventional manner is too expensive to be viable. Once an asset—whether it is a road, a bridge, a pipeline, or a rail track—degrades beyond a certain point, it enters the “failure zone” in its life cycle. The vulnerability of assets in that stage is obviously already at a very critical state; perhaps not doomed due to their construction as Bilham suggests, but certainly too old to defend themselves when attacked by natural threats. It’s an international headline and every developed economy acknowledges the issue – but the bigger question is, are there practical solutions?

[1] H. Alfven, Nobel Laureate in Physics, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1972

[2] Hewitt, K., Ed. (1983) “Interpretation of Calamity: from the viewpoint of human ecology”, Boston, Allen

[3] Bilham R. (2010) “Lessons from the Haiti Earthquake”, Nature, 463, 878-879