Mitigating Evolving Water Threats

Louis Gritzo


August 1, 2016

water threats climate change

As concerns about climate change and its potential impact on business continue to mount, companies are increasingly left wondering what they can do to adapt. One of the most pressing challenges is related to water. The near-term consequences of climate change include an increase in global average temperatures, rising sea levels and shifts in rainfall patterns, which can lead to too much water in places where it should not be and not enough water in places where it is needed. According to recent loss trends and the latest research, these changes are already occurring, albeit slowly, and will become more pronounced in the future. Savvy risk managers know that, by acting now, they may be able to avoid being blindsided.

One area where the understanding of water risk is improving is in flood hazard mapping. Advances in technology have led to improvements in weather satellites, geospatial data acquisition and physical model development, making old models obsolete. If you are working with information from a flood map that is more than 15 years old, it is time for an update.

Coastal facilities present perhaps the greatest challenge. Fortunately, there is data available for sea-level rise around the world—it is not uniform due to currents and gravitational fields—that indicates that the overall rate of sea level rise for the past 20 years does not appear to be increasing. Although most flood maps will capture the potential for coastal flooding, it is important to know if your map does. If local maps only cover river flooding, then at least plan for the current rate of sea level rise in the local area and take into account the influence of local topography on coastal floods. Areas along the coast that are surrounded by hills and mountains will likely experience far more wind-blown water (storm surge), as the local terrain directs more water in spaces between steeper slopes.

Despite improvements in flood maps, there are areas of the world where flood maps do not exist, particularly in emerging economies where business development is accelerating. The good news is that credible, low-resolution, global flood maps are now in development. Although not suitable for site-specific risk assessment, the maps can provide a key starting point for risk managers to assess their exposure, pursue more detailed information if needed and, in turn, provide advice to their employers.

Wherever your facility is located, a site-specific risk assessment is vital. If you are not in a flood zone, heavy rainfall can still cause surface water accumulations, which often surprise risk managers. Even in areas with arid climates, an occasional downpour can still cause significant damage.

If you have a facility in a flood zone, the first step is to develop a flood emergency response plan, then look to risk-reduction solutions. Manufacturers have developed many new products to protect against flood damage, but buyers should proceed with caution as not all such products have been tested. Avoid spending money on a solution that does not keep the water out and look for products that are tested and certified by entities like the National Flood Barrier Testing and Certification Program, which tests temporary flood barriers, closure devices, backwater valves and flood mitigation pumps.

Architects and engineers are also developing innovative designs to withstand and manage rising waters. These solutions involve developing or retrofitting building layouts to avoid placing valuable equipment on bottom floors and using seals to prevent water from entering into wiring chases, for example. With this type of design, if the facility does flood, it could easily be cleaned up and put back into service.

Drought is another water-related concern. Many parts of the world, even those within flood zones, are prone to this hazard. In some regions, there are also restrictions on water, which are only expected to increase. Having a plan that addresses how a lack of water can affect business risk is important. There are now solutions that meld water conservation and fire protection, creating an opportunity for risk management to align with organizational sustainability goals.

Regardless of the location of your operations, the future may bring serious issues with regard to water. Fortunately, there are now more ways to meet sustainability goals without increasing risk, more ways to understand the credible increase in flood exposure due to climate change, and more solutions for reducing overall flood and drought risk. Applying these technologies to assess your hazards and implementing these new solutions should be a vital part of your company’s sustainability and resilience strategy.
Louis Gritzo, Ph.D., is vice president and manager of research with FM Global.