Infrastructure: a key issue for disaster reduction

by Peter Boswell

The physical infrastructure sector is an important part of most economies. Urban and industrial infrastructure is planned, approved, built and operated according to elaborate rules, standards and criteria established by clients and regulatory authorities. Ensuring that such infrastructure is safe is a major issue for governments and industry. Vital community infrastructure must go on working after natural and other disasters to ensure rapid recovery can occur. Some infrastructure such as emergency response teams, hospitals and waste treatment and disposal facilities are there to deal with the consequences of disasters.

Consulting engineers are largely responsible for designing, planning and managing infrastructure and the profession has huge potential to contribute to disaster reduction and recovery. As the industry’s global voice, the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) speaks for more than 1m professionals in 44,000 fi rms worldwide.

One of FIDIC’s roles is to develop the capacity of private sector consultants to maximise their contribution to disaster reduction. It is advising member associations to actively participate in development of national best-practice guidelines and procedures.

The most visible part of disaster management is the response phase, which starts with immediate search and rescue, where engineers are trained in survival skills. Then follows a safety evaluation of criti-cal infrastructure such as hospitals and dams before extending to transport and service utilities. Several national industry associations have developed preparedness mechanisms for infrastructure facilities with which member fi rms already have links. In this way key organizations have timely access to engineers familiar with their operations.

The next response phase is evaluation of building safety, generally carried out in partnership with local authorities. This may be followed by the fast-track procurement of remedial infrastructure such as rebuilt dams and temporary roads and bridges.

Wider mechanisms for preparedness, response and recovery depend on extending this partnership to other stakeholders. Normal development and zoning plans increasingly recognise the importance of non-traditional stakeholders. Consulting engineers help to defi ne how these stakeholders are incorporated into plans.

International, national and local registers of professionals and fi rms that have demonstrated disaster-prevention and response capacity and skills help to build effective partnerships. Some registers cover safety evaluation and fast-track procurement of critical infrastructure such as potable water supplies, telecommunications systems and airstrips.

In the longer term, risk reduction strategies are needed to take a systematic approach to disaster avoidance. These incorporate elements such as risk identifi - cation, assessment, monitoring and early warning for emerging risks such as climate change, deforestation and soil degradation, and from development patterns and urbanization. Future investments must take these aspects more systematically into the core planning process, and consulting engineers are key players in the design and delivery of more ‘sustainable’ infrastructure. Reduction strategies are rendered operational through land use planning, use of construction codes, adoption of environmental management systems in ongoing operation, and increasingly, using project sustainability criteria that advance progress towards millennium goals.

Peter Boswell is the General Manager of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC), Geneva , Switzerland.

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