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The fury of Hurricane Ian, which claimed more than 100 lives and caused more than $8.4 billion in damage in Florida after slamming into the state as a Category 4 hurricane, captivated the entire nation as we grappled with the aftermath of yet another tragedy. Just weeks later, Hurricane Nicole hit the east coast of Florida, causing further damage to the state and claiming 5 lives.

There are just the latest reminder of how climate-associated natural disasters and emergencies continue to shape our lives, and the deadly cost of not investing properly in infrastructure.

Between hurricanes, droughts, floods, landslides, or wildfires, the interrelated human and economic costs continue to mount. Our future is less certain and much more vulnerable. 

GHD, a global professional services company in the water, energy, urbanization and transportation sectors, conducted a study of global water risk, called Aquanomics. The study revealed significant challenges to water availability, quality, security and economic activity, highlighting the urgency for change. Of total projected global gross domestic product (GDP) losses of $5.6 trillion due to droughts, floods and storms by 2050, $3.7 trillion was projected for the U.S., the greatest amount for any nation included in the report. The study also identified that the Southwestern region could bear the largest brunt of losses due to water issues, more than $1.4 trillion by 2050.

The study further looked at five sectors of economic activity. In the U.S., manufacturing and distribution, along with fast-moving consumer goods and retail, are projected to have the greatest losses in output. However, agriculture, at 1.2 percent, is projected to have the largest average annual output loss due to water-related issues. The other two sectors are energy and utilities, and banking and insurance.

Building water resilience is key

Overall, this is the first time that water risk has been calculated at a GDP and sector level.  Not surprisingly, the study also found that water risk is spread unevenly, depending on the state of an area’s existing infrastructure, local geographic features, dominant industries and local prevention systems, as well as existing government policies towards mitigation.

Aquanomics makes the case for rethinking water systems not just in terms of designing for relatively static capacities, but, most importantly, for resiliency, which means the ability to accommodate high-stress, emergent situations.  For example, flood levees and storm water reservoirs can be designed for potential catastrophic (yet still reasonable) demands in ways that allow for more flexibility.  As we’ve witnessed many times, the destruction from inadequate planning can be far worse in terms of loss of life, loss of economic activity and post-disaster rebuilding costs.

In the past, the common response to water challenges was to “build big” — creating centralized systems scaled-up to as much as five times the size of current needs, and intended to perform the same way for over a century.   However, building for resilience means we can no longer rely primarily on such costly, large-scale, engineered interventions.  Instead, we must take a long-term strategic view of resource management, focusing on three key principles: rapidly adapting to evolving risk, which may mean strategic deployment of small, even temporary investments; optimizing performance of existing infrastructure with advanced design principles and technologies; and prioritizing regenerative and nature-based solutions. 

In designing and constructing infrastructure, we must also consider its own possible impact on climate change or the resiliency of complementary systems.  Additionally, achieving this resiliency ultimately relies on both practical, community engaged planning and solutions such as green infrastructure to address flooding, combined with advanced diagnostic tools such as remote sensing and machine learning that will help us predict the impact of climate change, locally and globally, and model and compare possible solutions.

In particular, access to clean, healthy water is both a fundamental human right and practical need. Thus, many of the public health issues that were magnified during COVID-19, such as how can we practice handwashing as a disease preventative without access to or the ability to afford water, will increasingly apply as drought or floods leave their mark. As the City of Fort Myers recovers from Hurricane Ian, this is a very real and timely reminder of the importance of resilient water supplies.

There are no easy solutions here, but we must not shy away from addressing these fundamental issues.  Furthermore, our water industry, as custodians of supply, quality, collection and treatment, must focus on innovation and fostering a collaborative approach to transform global water systems.  It is time for a course correction.

Jonathan Pressdee is the U.S. Water Market Leader for GHD, a global professional services company that leads through engineering, construction and architectural expertise.