Anusha Shah climate emergency
Urban water Europe Coronavirus Covid-19 Anusha Shah

Anusha Shah: Why Covid-19 puts the climate emergency into perspective

Anusha Shah
Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Prioritising public health

Last year when my husband and I watched the film ‘Contagion’, I remember saying, “Can you imagine if this ever happened in our lifetime?” Fast forward a year, humanity is facing one of its biggest public health emergencies in terms of Covid-19 outbreak.

This year has been extraordinary so far, in February 2020 parts of our country were reeling from one of the worst flooding in recent times. They say trouble comes in threes, but for us there was a fourth one, Storm Ciara, Storm Dennis, Storm Jorge and Covid-19.

I dread to think what would have happened if the floods in the north of England had occurred in March. The work of the Environment Agency (EA), risk management authorities, emergency agencies and volunteers would have assumed a complexity of unimaginable proportions.

Having said that, we don’t know for how long this pandemic will last, as per the World Economic Forum, combination of urbanisation, climate change and a hyper-connected society means infectious disease epidemics are likely to become more common.

Environmentalists like Dr Enric Sala warn that we will continue to have more pandemics if we continue the practices of destroying the natural world. With climate change continuing to bring frequent and high intensity storms and likelihood of the pandemic wave either continuing or returning, we need to be prepared and include public health as a major consideration in flood risk management and resilience plans.

The EA has already moved from flood risk management to flood resilience through its draft National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management strategy, a great step in the right direction.

Flood resilience needs a basket of measures ranging from natural flood management, hard flood defences, temporary barriers, property flood resilience, sustainable urban drainage systems, flood warnings to community resilience. Covid-19 outbreak only highlights the need to place public health at the heart of this framework.

Preparing by investing into resilience

The last few years have demonstrated that perfect storms and multiple hazards don’t necessarily happen only in the movies. Fukushima, Japan in 2011 was hit by an earthquake of 8.9 magnitude, followed by a monumental tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown in harsh weather conditions. Japan or any other country for that matter would not have known what hit them.

We can no longer assume such disasters only happen in faraway places. We should swiftly learn from other countries, be prepared, and invest in resilience beforehand. Such thinking needs to be an integral part of our planning systems.

The need to look at different types of resilience - urban, pandemic, water, flood, supply chain, earthquake, typhoon, cyber, etc. in an integrated way, has only been necessitated by the ongoing pandemic.

As of now, we are witnessing a health and supply chain crisis, but a climate change event like a heat wave or floods could be just around the corner, and that can add another layer of complexity.

“An organism so tiny and invisible to the naked eye has brought our world to a grinding halt, we can’t get a louder and more appropriate wake-up call.”

Our world class transport system is lying unused, commercial real estate is empty, both large businesses and SMEs are in dire straits and there is hardly any aspect of our lives left unaffected.

An organism so tiny and invisible to the naked eye has brought our world to a grinding halt, we can’t get a louder and more appropriate wake-up call. If we still don’t invest in resilience now, we will lose the race not just in terms of economic competitiveness but also as a society in keeping our population healthy and safe.

Learning from China’s sponge city programme

Water sustains life but can cause havoc too. Covid-19 brings to attention another important dimension, the need to have undisrupted, safe and good quality water. Piet Dircke, global water & resilience leader at Arcadis aptly highlights this in his blog.

As per the National Audit Office report 2020, England is set to face droughts in 20 years due to climate breakdown if action is not taken. With extreme floods and water crisis on the horizon coupled with the risk of increasing pandemics, holistic water management becomes essential.

It’s about time we treat water as a reusable commodity and learn from cities like Singapore and Wuhan. Singapore is using rainwater extensively, their philosophy ‘to collect every drop and reuse water endlessly’ is helping them secure a sustainable water supply for the future.

Wuhan may be in the news for wrong reasons but it’s time to learn from their sponge city programme. Arcadis is working with the Wuhan Water Authority to upgrade the city’s urban drainage, retaining valuable water resources and utilizing natural system to achieve drainage and retention.

Wuhan has retrofitted public spaces, schools and residential areas with sponge features. These features absorb excessive rainfall through soil infiltration and retain it in underground tunnels and storage tanks, only discharging it into the river once water levels are low enough. In times of water crisis, these ecologically friendly systems will be invaluable.

The multiple benefits of these approaches in terms of water retention, health, well-being, carbon sequestration, clean air and temperature drop in a heat wave are well documented. These approaches in combination with hard flood defences and other measures like community resilience can make a city resilient against a combination of climate change events.

Anusha Shah Xinyuexie Park

A render of Xinyuexie Park, Wuhan designed to preserve and improve the storm water management. Photograph: Obermeyer

These ideas may seem far-fetched and complex to implement but we need to realise that our world has changed, more than ever we need to make swift decisions on holistic water management.

Starting from where the rain falls in the catchment to where it ends up in the sea/ocean, we need to soak as much as we can through sound catchment management and blue-green infrastructure approaches. We have the solutions and professional advice, what we need is the pace and will to remove bureaucratic hurdles and drive policies that support new ways of thinking.

“The coronavirus bill was passed in one day without opposition. It proves that when there is a political will, decisions can be made swiftly. It’s high time we treat climate change with similar urgency and priority.”

What else can we do?

  • In addition to emergency response and rescue planning, prioritise building urban resilience with a more systematic and long-term approach. As we have fire drills, we should start having drills that prepare us for multiple hazards such as floods, pandemics and break down of essential services like electricity, water, internet, telecommunications etc.
  • Determine interrelationships between critical infrastructure elements and how they can breakdown under various hazard scenarios and then devise solutions for the entire system accordingly
  • Re-design infrastructure and public spaces from a public health perspective. Modify the existing and old buildings in a way that they can be readily converted into a hospital or isolation centre for flood victims. Traditional evacuation centres will be unsuitable because of the need to separate/ isolate people
  • Build multi-functional infrastructure that not only reduces carbon but can also be quickly adapted to serve different needs. This multi-functionality can also help hotels and other real estate with business continuity during an event. We need to make sustainability and resilience work together
  • Social distancing will mean people struggling on their own to clean up post flood events. Engineers and environmental scientists will need to work alongside epidemiologists, doctors and communities to design infrastructure that is fit for the ‘new purpose’
  • Take personal responsibility to break silos and collaborate across professions, organisations and cities globally. The problems we are facing are multifaceted and the resolutions would need systems approach and learning from across the globe
  • Reduce international dependence on manufacturing of essential goods to avoid supply chain issues. The world’s 5th largest economy is awaiting 60 ventilators from Germany while we continue to lose brave doctors and nurses because of the lack of PPE. Local manufacturing will not only save lives but also create jobs, make us self-reliant in such emergencies, help maintain environmental and social standards leave alone reduce transport related GHG emissions
  • Utilise open spaces for storm water retention as much as possible. For example, future increased use of electric vehicles will leave large empty parking spaces, we need to seize opportunities and use these spaces as ‘sponges’ to store and retain water for times of crisis
  • While the focus is on health and supply chains right now, the process of fundamentally altering our behaviour can’t be underestimated, as illustrated by remote working. The positive impacts in the form of reduced air and water pollution and the subsequent impact on biodiversity is already evident. Intermittent fasting gives our body a break and detoxifies it, we need to give similar breaks to our cities and countries, this will go a long way in reducing our carbon footprint and serve as a reminder that we need to preserve other species who we share this planet with
  • We need stronger collaboration between the government, private sector and communities. Dyson designed a new ventilator in 10 days aiming to produce 15,000 ventilators, General Motors is manufacturing 30,000 ventilators in the United States. 3D Crowd UK’s ‘Big Print’ initiative is producing thousands of masks. With a clear goal, diverse parties can collaborate and move at pace sparking innovation. Similar effort on war footing is required in case of climate emergency
  • The global pandemic is forcing us to re-look at our current economic models and seek new ones, we are experiencing that old economic models are no longer fit for purpose. We need sustainable economic models that take into account financial, social and environmental parameters that meet the core needs of both the people as well as the planet. Amsterdam is already embracing the ‘doughnut’ model to mend its post-coronavirus economy
  • Make our critical infrastructure more resilient to public health crisis. Novel coronavirus has been detected in wastewater in the Netherlands, this can help trace infections on one hand but pose a risk to workers in the vicinity. We need stricter controls, education and training of staff to make them aware of such risks
  • As per International Construction Costs 2020 report by Arcadis, there is a risk of loss of momentum towards climate action due to the global disruption caused by COVID-19. We need to push for low carbon and resilient infrastructure to be given a priority in any stimulus package to avoid escalations of emissions as economies recover. This assumes more importance as the diplomatic events geared towards climate change have already been postponed
  • Prepare, support and train diverse communities for all types of events by building community resilience using media, culture, arts, music, faith groups, etc.
  • Include a diverse workforce in decision making. Neither Covid-19 nor climate change have shown any discrimination, it’s absolutely critical that we have non-discriminatory solutions for a healthy and safe nation
  • Have robust mechanisms to deal with disinformation and fake news. We have seen how rumours and propaganda around such calamities can further complicate an already complex situation and derail rescue and rehabilitation efforts
  • Last but not the least, plan, design and build infrastructure and systems for the old and the vulnerable in our societies who are worst struck by such events. This will invariably provide benefits for everyone leave alone help address social inequality.

These suggestions are by no means exhaustive, more can be debated and explored, especially at the governance level.

Learning from nature’s big pause

The current crisis is showing us that healthy people drive healthy economies and for sustainable human health we need a healthy ecosystem. Climate emergency places a huge risk to our healthy ecosystem. We have once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn lessons from the Covid-19 outbreak and treat climate emergency as an emergency in true sense of the word.

Nature has given us a big pause and the world has come to a standstill. If we don’t learn now, we never will. We either continue to live and work the way we have been with small incremental steps on climate action, or we think deep and hard about the interconnections between health, social value, environment and economy and completely overhaul our personal and professional lives. I believe it's the latter as we don't have a choice anymore.

The next event may not even give us the luxury of time to think, plan and act.

Anusha Shah

Anusha Shah

Director Resilient Cities
Arcadis UK

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