Water systems and climate change expose cities to greater risks

The frequency and cost of floods are increasing

2021 was another year of extremes. In the summer, devastating floods in Germany, France and Belgium caused hundreds of deaths and billions in damage to residential buildings, commercial properties and urban infrastructure. In central China’s Henan province, floods have overflowed water reservoirs, flooded roads, and even infiltrated underground parking lots and subway tunnels, grabbing vehicles and commuters.1 Hurricane Ida hit the United States and is considered the most expensive natural disaster of 2021. The effects of Ida have been felt as far as Canada. Unprecedented floods hit there a few months later when storms hit the western province of British Columbia. Extreme rains and floods also occurred in Japan, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and India.2

The picture is likely to repeat itself in 2022. Severe floods have already devastated the country and people in south-east Australia.

Table 1: The five largest natural disasters in 2021 (by total losses)


Source: Munich Re, NatCatSERVICE, 2022

Climate scientists predict that global warming will change weather patterns. This makes floods more unpredictable, frequent and expensive. Since 2000, floods have increased by 134% over the previous two decades.3 The incidence, damage and costs of floods are increasing by the amount of billions of double-digit losses and cumulative economic losses totaling hundreds of billions every year. The total economic cost is hundreds of billions per year.4 Floods and storms were the biggest economic losses in 2021, with $ 135 billion in damage.5

Since 2000, floods have increased by 134% over the previous two decades

Figure 1: Total losses of the top five natural disasters in 2021 (millions of dollars)

Source: Munich Re, NatCatSERVICE, 2022

Outdated equipment and backlog of investments

The rising cost of extreme weather conditions highlights the vulnerability of many urban water supply systems and highlights the need for investment in water infrastructure. For many years, many urban regions have invested little in water infrastructure. Building flood-resistant and climate-resistant structures will reverse this trend.

The average age of the 1.6 million miles of water and sewer pipes in the United States is nearly 50 years. Parts of it were built over a century ago.6 The American Society of Civil Engineers has assigned flood infrastructure in the United States a dismal D grade on a scale of A to F and estimates the investment backlog at $ 8 billion annually just to comply with current regulations.7 Investments in climate resilience will be even greater. Closing the investment gap in water infrastructure requires investments of $ 109 billion annually across the system (totaling $ 2 trillion by 2040).8th The US government’s recently passed Infrastructure Act, which will provide nearly $ 50 billion to improve aging drinking water, flood control and sewage systems, will help, but not enough.9,10

Rising cost of extreme weather conditions highlights the vulnerability of many urban water supply systems and highlights the need for investment in water infrastructure

The United States is not alone. Parts of the 7 million km of water pipes in the EU have been in operation since the First World War. Politicians complain that investments in water infrastructure are not keeping up with the challenges of the 21st century, which include population growth and rapid urbanization as well as climate change. A 2019 EU report estimated flood-related damage in Member States at € 20-30 billion in 2020. The damage caused by floods in Germany in 2021 alone amounted to € 40 billion. This means that Member States have drastically underestimated the cost of future damage.11:12

Overall, the OECD estimates that to achieve sustainable economic growth and development (from flood protection to safe and universal access to water), global investments in water infrastructure are expected to reach $ 6.7 trillion by the end of the year. 2030.13

In coastal cities, higher risks ensure accelerated adaptation

The increasing frequency of hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons and rising sea levels mean that the risk of inertia for coastal urban areas is increasing faster than average.

The island city-state of Singapore is one of the most advanced in the world in developing water management solutions. In addition to a dense network of drainage lines, reservoirs and catchment areas that collect and channel rainwater, local water services are also investing in cutting-edge technologies that help monitor and respond to storms in real time. A thunderstorm radar monitors rainfall volumes offshore, while sensors in the pipes and valves monitor the pressure, volume and quality in the water network, allowing the network, pipes and tanks to be adjusted to maintain balance in the system. Similar approaches are recommended for the US and the EU for climate-proof urban water infrastructure.

As an alternative to traditional flood defense infrastructure, coastal cities like Hong Kong and San Francisco are using natural solutions to improve climate resilience. Both are developing open green spaces within the city and along the coast that serve as parks in the dry season and as giant “sponges” to absorb excess water during storms. The Washington DC water company recently completed a major $ 2.6 billion project that combines innovative “green” and traditional “gray” water management measures to prevent flooding from polluting the Chesapeake Bay. The “gray” measures provided for the installation of underground drainage tunnels, while the “green” methods provided for the installation of roofs with vegetation, permeable pavement and so-called bioswales (ditches for the collection of runoff water) in key points of the city.

Investments in water mitigate the climate risk

Whether “green” or “gray”, investing in water infrastructure is initially capital intensive, but with the exponentially rising costs associated with climate change, the cost of doing nothing far outweighs the cost of prevention. The extreme events and the extreme costs they entail are turning from being the exception to the norm. To protect not only the water supply, but also public and private facilities, cities and businesses (many of which manage their own water supplies) should now strengthen their defenses.

From smart sensors and precision analytics to pipelines and tunnels, from modern wastewater treatment to maintenance of natural watersheds, companies along the entire water value chain offer private companies and utilities adaptive solutions climate to protect water supply, public infrastructure and human health. Investing in water helps mitigate climate risk, increase climate residence, and keep growing and developing cities safe.

1 “The death toll triples to over 300 in the recent floods in China.” Associated Press, August 2, 2021.
2 “The state of climate services 2021: water”. World Meteorological Organization. https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/wake-looming-water-crisis-report-warns
3Ibid.
4Re switzerland press release. December 14, 2021. “Global insured catastrophe losses rise to $ 112 billion in 2021.” https://www.swissre.com/media/news-releases/nr-20211214-sigma-full-year-2021-preliminary-natcat-loss-stimas.html
5Munich Re, NatCat Service, Report on Natural Catastrophe 2021.
6 “The 300 billion dollar war under the road. Struggle to replace American water pipes ”November 10, 2017. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/climate/water-pipes-plastic-lead.html
7 “Report Card 2021 for American infrastructures”. 2021. https://stormwater.wef.org/2021/03/stormwater-receives-ad-in-first-ever-asce-report-card-appearance/
8 “The economic benefits of investing in water infrastructure”. Report 2020. Value of Water Campaign, 2020. US Water Alliance, American Society of Civil Engineers, EBP, Downstream Strategies.
9 “Biden signs an infrastructure bill with funding increases for the water sector.” 12 Nov 2021. Finance and water management.
10 “Large US infrastructure package to meet stormwater industry needs.” September 1, 2021. Rainwater Report from the Water Environment Federation (WEF). https://stormwater.wef.org/2021/09/major-us-infrastructure-package-to-address-stormwater-sector-needs/
11Z.W. Kundzewicz, P. Licznar. “Climate change adaptations in engineering design standards: a European perspective”. Water Policy 2021. https://iwaponline.com/wp/article/23/S1/85/84955/Climate-change-adjustments-in-engineering-design
12 “The German floods cost a record $ 40 billion, Munich Re estimates.” Bloomberg. January 10, 2022. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-01-10/german-floods-cost-a-record-40-billion-munich-re-stimas
13 “Financing water: investing in sustainable growth”. OECD Environmental Policy Document, No. 11. 2018.

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