Inspired from the recent Āpōpō congress at Tākina in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington), our Business Director - Water and Āpōpō Board Member Darren de Klerk reflects on his experience leading significant work programmes post Cyclone Gabrielle and the role of asset managers in building asset resilience into our infrastructure future.

Asset resilience in Aotearoa requires our infrastructure assets to withstand, adapt, and recover from unexpected but probable events like cyclones. Our decision making needs to enable resilient assets that are physically durable, financially sustainable, offer operational continuity and serve our communities in the long term. At the Āpōpō congress, the term ‘mokopuna decision-making’ really resonated that generational thinking needs to be at the forefront of an asset managers’ decision making.

Mokopuna decision-making reminds and grounds me that it’s about the people. Infrastructure is a valuable tangible lifeline, but without the people, the asset serves no purpose.

Lessons from Cyclone Gabrielle

Cyclone Gabrielle caused significant unprecedented damage to many communities across the North Island of New Zealand, impacting our lifelines - infrastructure, housing, the primary sector, and businesses. Vital infrastructure we might have taken for granted was tested, and found wanting – our roads, water, wastewater, stormwater, waste, communications, and power supplies all impacted, creating rippling effects that will be felt for decades.

Post-disaster recovery requires a multifaceted, multi-agency approach to respond, recover, plan and mitigate future risks as best we can. As infrastructure leaders, we need to be addressing both immediate solutions following any event, and then taking the lessons and creating long-term strategies.

Cyclone Gabrielle’s devastating impact on Aotearoa calls for robust asset management strategies to navigate the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

Five key areas worth considering for an asset resilient infrastructure future

Learning, Risk Assessment and Mitigation Planning

Learning: Each event unfortunately offers us an opportunity to learn and reflect. From how our assets performed, to how we supported our communities, and to how our communities supported each other. We can reflect on what worked and what didn’t at an asset and social level to benefit future generations. 

Localised climate risk analysis: It’s important to understand the specific vulnerabilities of our assets and our regions to disasters. Comprehensive risk assessments should consider historical data, local conditions, and future climate projections. Working closely with others by taking a multi-agency approach can offer valuable insight.

Scenario planning: Developing multiple dynamic climate scenarios can help anticipate and encourage flexible and adaptive management strategies. Typically, we don’t do this well, and while we have plans, these aren’t well known and easily implementable. 

Insurance and financial protection: Ensuring adequate insurance coverage for our assets is crucial. Asset managers should be working across their organisations to review and update cover and valuations to consider a wide range of climate-related risks. Additionally, asset owners need to think globally for local solutions. For example, where appropriate, innovative financial instruments like catastrophe bonds could provide financial protection against major losses from extreme weather events.

Investing in Resilient Infrastructure and Building Back Better

Resilient fit-for-future construction: It’s essential to adopt construction practices that enhance a structures ability to withstand nature’s forces. While this could include using stronger materials or upgrading existing structures, it’s also important to consider whether existing levels of services are even achievable, and whether safe failing infrastructure could be installed that could be recovered and repaired quicker. By supporting communities in understanding the expected performance of their community assets, we can better equip them to respond at a local level. 

Nature-based solutions: By leveraging, restoring and preserving Aotearoa’s natural landscapes, such as wetlands and mangroves, we can enhance our taiao, and integrate Mātauranga Māori while building effective buffers against flooding, enhance resilience and offer additional ecological benefits. For example, wetlands can absorb excess rainfall, reducing the risk of flooding and improving water quality. Why not consider these in ‘build back better’ plans?

Building back at all: Through robust engagement with communities and asset users, consider whether the solution to ‘build back better’ is to rebuild at all. Consider evaluating if a simpler, more manageable service level might better suit the community’s recovery. While much is talked about where we build and the decisions made in a planning context, we really need to look hard at the impact of providing this sprawling infrastructure, considering the cost to install and maintain, followed by the cost to insure and recover these assets.

Embracing sustainable solutions and empowering communities

Empowering communities: When considering the role of asset managers in enabling and empowering communities to look after themselves during more frequent climate events, could success be measured by lessening reliance on traditional infrastructure? For example, enabling properties to install on-property water storage or back up power supplies would help in prolonging the longevity of our assets and slow the need for upgrades. 

At a community level, we can work to equip and empower our communities to become more sustainable, while again, lessening their reliance on a centralised infrastructure. For example, across the East Coast following Cyclone Gabrielle, there were examples of equipping community hubs to support their communities. 

Fit-for-purpose climate policy: Our evolving climate-related policy is crucial to supporting sound decision making and capturing the learnings from our experiences. Asset managers are key enablers in operationalising these policies, for instance, employing stricter building codes for hazard/ risk-prone areas can enhance overall resilience for the future.

Leveraging Innovation
Real-time monitoring: Technologies such as IoT (Internet of Things) sensors, machine learning and AI (Artificial Intelligence) can play a crucial role in building resilience into our assets and communities. Enabling real-time monitoring that allows for learning, anticipation, proactive maintenance, and rapid response to emerging events could positively impact the way we respond to climate events. For example, while sensors are common, they are not consistently applied or understood, and have the potential to provide asset managers with key information to make decisions for future investment, or more critically, in a disaster. 

Big data and analytics: By analysing vast amounts of data, asset managers can identify patterns and trends, predict potential impacts, and optimise resources. This data-driven approach provides for more accurate risk assessments, more effective mitigation strategies and informs better decision-making.

Smart infrastructure: Investing in smart infrastructure that incorporates advanced technologies can contribute to more resilient and efficient asset management. For example, smart grids for electricity distribution that can automatically detect and respond to faults and smart water management systems that optimise water usage and reduce flood risks. 
Asset Managers that are pragmatic, that listen, learn and share
Stakeholder engagement: Engaging with local communities, landowners, tangata whenua, contractors, engineers, designers, politicians, and government agencies, are essential to making sound and informed asset management decisions. Collaborative efforts through diverse perspectives and needs lead to more effective resilience strategies, for example, involving local communities in flood mitigation projects can enhance the effectiveness and acceptance of the solutions.

Fit for purpose management and investment: Managing our existing assets is as important as investing in new assets - we can’t always afford to continue to build new structures or build back damaged ones. We have to get more out of our existing resources, be that people, systems or the physical assets. It’s vital as asset managers that we are being as efficient as possible, considering this as part of any discussions and assessment before we opt to build new. 

The ‘leaky bucket’ analogy has been referred to a fair lately in the industry, and this analogy reflects whether we are simply pouring more time, resource, effort, and money into something that’s fundamentally littered with issues, rather than fixing the issue. The very public and literal water loss through our pipes are a great example, and the need get these under control and this could reduce some of the need for investment. 

Continuous education and sharing: Providing ongoing education on climate risks and resilience strategies for communities, leaders and asset managers will help equip those who may be impacted in future to make informed decisions and stay ahead of emerging trends and challenges. As infrastructure professionals, we need to be having realistic conversations on the risks involved, what resilience means, and raising awareness. 
Being ready for our uncertain future
It’s real, we cannot bury our heads in the sand, and as leaders of our community assets we can make a difference. The decisions we make everyday influence how prepared the communities and people we serve are for the future. 

Cyclone Gabrielle has made climate change real for many, and 2023 is an unmistakable turning point in our climate history and future, etched in history for all the wrong reasons, and providing us a stark reminder of the critical importance of infrastructure as a lifeline in our daily lives.

Asset managers have a vital role in our infrastructure future, planning and managing existing assets, building new, building back, or creating policies to guide future decision making. By understanding our risks, enabling resilient and sustainable infrastructure, and leveraging technological advancements, asset managers can learn, lead, enable, engage and contribute to a more resilient, prepared and sustainable Aotearoa. 

As John Lewis questioned his whole life, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

About the Author
Darren de Klerk

Business Director - Water

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