In mid-July, some 250 people were killed in Germany and Belgium as rain-swollen rivers flooded towns over a wide area. More than 10 inches of rain fell in 48 hours in some spots; Cologne received 6 inches in 24 hours. It was the deadliest natural disaster to hit Germany in over 50 years. Economic losses are estimated at over $3 billion, with the total likely to rise much higher. Germany was not alone in experiencing extreme rainfall in July. One Sunday, Londoners were hit with a month’s worth of rain within a few hours. In Central China, rain amount records were set, over a million people were affected, and the subway in Zhengzhou – a city of 5 million – flooded while passengers were trapped in trains. This a year after several million were displaced by flooding in the Yangtze River Basin. And in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, July 2021 became the rainiest year since records were first kept – in 1891.
In our previous column, Infrastructure Ideas wrote about rising water levels along coasts, and the infrastructure implications of plans to build seawalls to defend many cities. As last month has shown, once again, weather-related flood events are increasing far from the seas as well. Floods are both damaging existing infrastructure, creating repair and restoration needs, and triggering plans for new infrastructure investments to help cities adapt to rising flood risks.
Too much water in many places, and not enough in others. July’s extreme weather events were not limited to flooding: in the Western US, in Turkey, in Greece and in Sardinia, wildfires also set records and damaged widespread areas. Some of these wildfires are expected to burn on into the Fall. Much of the Western US also saw unprecedented heat waves in July, setting the stage for the fires – as did Moscow, among other places. Last year it was Australia. In an era of climate change, extreme weather events are becoming more common, and the IPCC — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – tells us that the frequency of these extreme events will increase as global temperatures rise. As a headline from the New York Times says “No One is Safe.”
From the standpoint of infrastructure, these floods, and the wildfires, share one important thing in common. They result from extreme weather events which are unpredictable.
General trends are clear: more floods in some places, and more heat and fires in others. Sea level rises are increasingly observable, and “predictable” in the short term. But the timing and scale of downpours is – generally speaking – not predictable, and neither are the location or breadth of wildfires. With Climate Change, we already observe that extreme events occur on shorter notice, with both more intensity and severity than before – and, as July has demonstrated, outside of any forecast range.
This lack of predictability, in an age of adaptation to climate change, has significant implications for infrastructure. The big implication is that related infrastructure investments — being made with a short (or no) planning period, and subject to a large range of uncertainties as to how soon they are needed, how frequently they’ll be used, and the magnitude of the problem they seek to solve — will tend to have some of the least desirable characteristics of infrastructure projects. Notably, these investments can expect to be characterized by (a) frequent design changes, (b) significant delay risks, and (c) large cost overruns. Frequent design changes will almost inevitably stem from the uncertainties involved, and from the politics surrounding how best to respond. Risks of delays and overruns go hand-in-hand with frequent design changes in all construction projects.
In normal times, public authorities asking for infrastructure projects, and lenders supporting the projects, always look to lay this kind of risk off to sponsors and construction companies. Completion guarantees from sponsors and performance bonds from construction companies are the primary instruments to shift these risks. A consequence of climate change, and the rapid rise in adaptation-related infrastructure investments, is that it will become more difficult for these risks to be shifted in the way public authorities and lenders typically require. The culprit will be unpredictability. With the higher risks of delays and overruns coming from that unpredictability, the size of adaptation-related infrastructure performance bonds will strain the balance sheets of many construction companies. Where sponsors themselves are also construction companies, required completion guarantees will make the problem worse. And the construction companies will note, often correctly, that weather-related sources of cost overruns – as well as overruns stemming from political disagreements on how best to respond to extreme weather events – are outside of their control, making them even more unwilling to take on these risks. We can therefore expect to see that many infrastructure investments intended to help cities and other areas adapt to more extreme weather events – urgent investments when the need for them becomes clear – will get at best delayed and at worse stuck due to the unwillingness of parties to bear the risks stemming from higher unpredictability.
Keeping infrastructure investments flowing as the need to adapt to extreme weather events grows may therefore require something new. For developing countries, funding for these higher risk investments may simply get swept up into their general need for additional finance related to climate change: yet one more problem to solve. For wealthier and middle-income countries, the solution may wind up in the domain of insurance. The likely best way to manage the risks from unpredictability will be diversification of that risk across a very large pool of geographies and projects. One model may be the World Bank’s Disaster Risk Financing and Insurance program, developed in the mid-2010s, which was created to pool weather-related risks for low-income countries.
Floods in Germany, fires in the Mediterranean, these are disasters whose occurrence, timing and scope are increasingly unpredictable. Yet that such events will occur more frequently is itself predictable. Infrastructure investments may in at least some cases mitigate the damages and deaths from further extreme weather events, and will in many cases be needed to repair damages. These adaptation-related investments will present different problems than traditional infrastructure, due to the unpredictability of specific severe weather events. The biggest problem is likely to revolve around Performance Bonds, and the ability of construction companies to absorb unpredictability risk. Let’s hope insurance can provide a solution.