Critical Infrastructure Resilience: Role of Geo-engineers
Mary Antonette Beroya-Eitner
Institute of Geotechnics, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Technical University of Darmstadt
Critical infrastructures (CI) refer to the assets, networks and facilities that are essential for maintaining vital societal and economic functions. They include the systems that deliver the water we drink, the power that lights our home, the transportation that moves us around, the internet that connects us to others – in other words, our lifelines. Thus, their destruction and disruption, such as during natural disasters, have immeasurable negative impacts on public health and safety, national security, and economic productivity.
Referring to a study by the EU Joint Research Centre, the UNDRR (2022) reported that the damage to the infrastructures in Europe (which, in the study, includes the EU Members, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland) as a result of disasters and climate change currently amounts to approximately €9.3 billion annually. This is expected to balloon to €19.3 billion by 2050 and €37 billion by 2080. Recognising the simultaneous vulnerability and societal significance of CI, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction thus identifies Critical Infrastructure Resilience as a key component for disaster risk reduction. This is in line with Goal 9 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which calls for “sustainable industrial development; universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy services; sustainable transport systems; and quality and resilient infrastructure.”
But what is Critical Infrastructure Resilience? Originally developed as an ecological concept (Holling, 1973), the term “resilience” has evolved in recent decades to apply to a wide range of usage, including for better understanding the performance of infrastructures, especially during and after disturbances. In this context, Critical Infrastructure Resilience can be broadly understood as the ability of the CI systems to absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event.
As implied above, however, this ability is currently greatly challenged, particularly in the face of climate change. The threats that have emerged are multifarious and complex such that a concerted effort towards an integrated resilience approaches across different disciplines is necessitated. In this regard, the geo-engineering community can play a critical role, particularly in the design and construction that take into account the interaction of the structure with the changing conditions of the soil and the environment. The challenge to geo-engineers is to adopt a dynamic and pro-active perspective to understand the evolution of soil-structure performance not only during undesired system conditions (known threats), but also from unexpected climate events (“known unknowns” or “unknown unknowns”), such as during disruptive events and operating regimes that are usually considered to be unlikely design conditions (Sansavini, 2016).
Do you have ideas for other experiments that can contribute to enhancing the resilience of Europe’s critical infrastructure? If you do, you can find more information and apply for GEOLAB’s Second call-for-proposals here.
Related to this, GEOLAB invites experiments on the pressures undermining the resilience of the Critical Infrastructures of Europe. In parallel, GEOLAB is also organizing a themed workshop on the “Critical Infrastructure of Europe” on 18 November 2022 in ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Further details will be posted on the GEOLAB website.
Holling, C.S. (1973). Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst., 4, 1–23.
Sansavini, G. (2016). Engineering Resilience in Critical Infrastructures. In: IRGC, Resource Guide on Resilience. Lausanne: EPFL International Risk Governance Center. v29-07-2016.
UNDRR-Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia (2022). Making Critical Infrastructure Resilient: Ensuring Continuity of Service – Policy and Regulations in Europe and Central Asia. Retrieved on 25 July 2022 from https://www.undrr.org/publication/making-critical-infrastructure-resilient-ensuring-continuity-service-policy-and