Ageing Infrastructure

What do you think is the most likely reason for a water grid shutdown?  It isn’t terrorism and it isn’t pollution. The answer is, the age of the infrastructure used to deliver the water or collect the sewage. Think about the city you live in. Chances are it has existed for hundreds of years, if not longer. Most cities water systems grow in phases. They keep adding to the network every year as the population grows. The end result is most cities have infrastructure that range from less than a year to hundreds of years and with many different materials. I have seen water mains made of wood in service as late as 2011. Like any piece of equipment it all has a useful lifespan, beyond that lifespan failures become increasingly more likely to be catastrophic. The result is a large volume and dollar amount of material and equipment that needs repairs or to be replaced.

Wooden Water Main circa 1909 source www.nytimes.com

Wooden Water Main circa 1909 source http://www.nytimes.com

Normally the stress on water systems comes from population growth.  A water main that was ok in the 1980’s may not be large enough for today’s population.  As cities infill and build higher density buildings they frequently overburden the water systems.  Either causing contamination or total failure of the system.

Older equipment is also more susceptible to natural disasters, terrorism and human accidents. These three things can break a new system too, however they don`t have to try as hard with the older systems.

Climate change is having an affect too.  As severe weather events are on the rise, storm sewers might be found lacking, as was the case in Calgary, Alberta and Toronto, Ontario recently.  The system was grossly undersized for the amount of rain that fell.  They said things like “it was a month’s worth of rain in one day” on the news.  When the fact is, it once was a months worth of rain, and is now something more frequent, lets say a weeks worth of rain.    I’m not suggesting we build our systems to meet a 1000 year storm, but I am suggesting that our current idea of a 100 year storm may be an underestimation and that the error is getting worse.  To bring it back to infrastructure, if we are built to the current 100 year storm levels, what happens if the 100 year storms are getting worse?  We will find out in the not too distant future.

Calgary, Flood, Floods, Water

Flooding In Calgary AB 2013 source: http://www.newinfills.ca

What are the options for people to take? The first and most important thing to do is to plan ahead and replace older parts of the system before they fail.  A $50,000 job to replace an old section of pipe at a time you choose is a lot cheaper than waiting for it to fail at the time you are least prepared.  If you are connected to a public utility, ask them about their equipment replacement plan.  If they are not looking 25 years into the future or longer then ask them why not? If you have private systems, you need to ask the same questions.  Can you afford to replace the septic system when it fails? Or can you afford to dig/drill a new well when the casing cracks?

As you can probably surmise the addition of more people + more rain + more water and more sewage means system failures will become more frequent and probably for longer periods of time.  What does this mean to the average person?  Plan for system failure.  Have a backup system ready to go when it does.  Know the age of your equipment and it`s expected lifetime. That way you wont be caught off guard.

Advertisements

Terrorist Attack and Water Systems

Water systems are distributed networks of pipes, pumps and reservoirs. Like all distributed networks they can be very difficult to protect from vandalism and terrorist attack. There are two broad types of attacks that could hit a water system. The first type is an attack on the quantity of water available (physical supply) and the second is an attack on the quality of water. The end result of both types of attack is a lack of potable water entering your home.

The greatest defense for a water system is that most of it is underground. It is very difficult to access most parts of water distribution systems. Even for the operators of the system it is time consuming and disruptive to the wider community. If anyone unauthorized to dig in a road to access a watermain they will be reported to the authorities in the form of complaints about traffic or noise.
I think it goes without saying that depending on public complaints to defend against terrorism is nowhere near secure.

Water Treatment Plant (source: wikipedia.org)

The exposed parts of water systems are water treatment facilities, reservoirs and fire hydrants. These are the points where the system is at the surface and easily accessible. These different points also offer different security concerns.

Treatment facilities are as secure as any factory or industrial facility will be. The treatment facility I work at is always locked and there are a limited number keys. Then there is an electronic alarm system which brings a human on site if there is an intrusion alarm. There is also a human dispatched if the communication link is broken. A large city water treatment facility will most likely be manned twenty-four hours a day. The biggest weakness here is that properly armed people can force their way in and destroy the building if they so desire. Or they can contaminate the reservoir on site (if they know how).

Reservoirs of treated water are next most likely place for a terrorist attack. The biggest weakness here is that reservoirs are almost never manned during the day. They will be visited most days, but rarely will people be there all day. The good news is that water in reservoirs is monitored constantly(usually) with automatic analyzers. Reservoirs can be destroyed, and the water within wasted. Or the quality of the water can be destroyed this is where chemicals could be added easily.

The remaining pieces of the system are fire hydrants. Fire hydrants pose a unique risk to water security. It is very easy to add chemicals to a fire hydrant. It is however not easy to get that chemical into the water supply. This is because of the construction of the hydrant itself and the pressure in the system. There is a valve at the bottom of the hydrant which isolates the water. In order to add chemicals to a fire hydrant you also have to lower the system pressure which is rarely easy to do undetected. At this point I want you to remember the scene in Batman Begins where Sandman is dumping his psychotropic drug into a cracked watermain. I don’t expect realistic depictions from the movie, I do however want you to know this is nowhere near realistic. Watermains are pressurized, when they crack water shoots out at anywhere from 50 to 100psi. This is enough to erode foundations of buildings and the all soil around the break creating massive sinkholes. It is not something you can pour chemicals into. This is what it looks like when watermains break.

Just adding chemicals to water, is not as effective as it appears on the surface.  Most water supplies contain residual disinfectants, usually chlorine.  Disinfectants are highly reactive chemicals, they aren’t limited to just killing bacteria.  Highly reactive chemicals often react with other chemicals.  I am obviously oversimplifying the chemistry involved, but it is true that a large portion of any chemical added to water will be consumed by the chlorine in the water.

Adding Chemicals to Water (source: http://www.thejakartapost.com)

Cyber attack is another way water systems are vulnerable.  You may wonder why water treatment facilities are connected to the internet and the answer is for remote monitoring and control.  It may seem like an unwarranted risk having these facilities connected to the web.  It is not an unwarranted risk at all.  The likelihood of the automated system needing an intervention that cannot wait for someone to be onsite is greater than a targeted cyber attack. Keep in mind that even normal breakdowns of the watersystem can cause illness and even death.  These need to be responded to and are just as important as preventing cyber attack. I am not a technology expert so I will leave it to other people to suggest the best firewall setup.   Another thing to note about cyber attack on a water treatment facility is that even if the attacker is successful and shuts down the control computer, the facility can still be controlled manually.

Terrorism is something that needs to be addressed when it comes to water systems.  People inside and outside the system need to be aware of the risks and what can be done for protecting the security of out water.

Will There Be A War Over Water?

Will be there a war over water resources in the future? I can almost guarantee that there will be.  No I am not predicting the future, I am just channeling the past.  Wars over water have already occurred.  The wars may not have been solely about obtaining water, but I challenge you to name one war that had one goal and was about one thing.  Water has played a key part in every war in arid regions since the beginning of human wars.
Here is a list of times water has been directly involved in human conflict.  It doesn’t list the times water was unintentionally affected by human conflict as I’m confident that list is next to impossible to compile. http://www.worldwater.org/conflict/list/

The point is, water is essential to life, denying someone water is an easy way to break an individual. Continue reading

The Decline Is Happening Now

There is always something to worry about looming on the horizon. Many disasters are easy to see the start and end points of. Natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes or man made disasters like wars, all have clear start and end points. These things are easily dealt with the predict, prepare, respond, repair/rebuild model of disaster management.

Not all disasters are so clear cut. Some disasters build up so slowly that we fail to notice them in time. It is human nature to become accustomed to a norm. If the norm changes slowly enough we won’t ever notice. Continue reading

USA And Canada A Comparison For Better Understanding Of Both

First off, neither system is inherently better. They are different, and are trying to accomplish and prevent different things. Second, I am Canadian so I know that system lot better. However I am not ignorant of the American system either. In university I minored in public administration. That’s not studying how to be a government worker, but the studying the structure, function, purpose of Governments. In other words public administration is the study of how governments conduct their business and politics covers the why. I think at this point I have convinced you to keep reading (or not?).

Canada and the USA have a very tightly intertwined history. We both started from predominately British colonies. There were other European countries with colonies, most notably France, but they had less influence in shaping both countries. Continue reading