Vivek Sindhamani and Peter Vorage discuss the growing threat of flooding to airports and how some of the region’s major hubs are planning ahead to increase their resilience to rising water levels.
During the past five years, over twenty major, and many more small-island airports, have flooded due to extreme rainfall events or storm surges in combination with a rise in sea levels.
The list includes Chennai International Airport in India in 2015; Japan’s Kansai International Airport as a result of Typhoon Jebi in 2018; Cochin Airport in India which was left partly submerged after severe rainfall in Kerala in 2019; and Grand Bahama International Airport in the Bahamas, closed in the wake of Hurricane Dorian the same year.
These events are just the tip of the (melting) iceberg as the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted a continued increase of sea levels and occurrences of erratic rainfall events.
Many ACI member-airports were constructed in coastal or river floodplain areas since these were the only large, flat surfaces available for safe aircraft operations.
This situation has become increasingly critical due to increased urbanisation in these airports’ surrounding areas. This, in turn, has reduced natural water buffering putting airport flood resilience under further pressure.
As a result, airports are now uniquely vulnerable to the increasing effects of climate change, and to flooding in particular.
Benefits of planning ahead
- Less costly
- Less disruptive to ongoing operations
- More time available to align stakeholders
- Opportunity to spread costs
Disruption to airport operations
In 2011, extreme rainfall caused Bangkok’s main river to flood a large part of the city, including Don Mueang International Airport.
The resulting effects were so severe that it took a year to carry out the extensive repair work required and replace damaged electrical and IT systems. During this period, all flights had to be diverted to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi.
This is a prime example of what the finance and insurance sector term the physical risk of climate change.
Other examples may be found following the aftermath of hurricanes such as Katrina in New Orleans and Sandy in New York in 2012, where flooding at regional airports meant that disaster relief teams had to use alternative airports and travel by road to reach disaster-hit areas.
You might think that the enormous potential cost and operational disruption would lead authorities to ensure their airports are well defended. Sadly, in our experience, this is not the case.
Today, the average airport is built on legacy infrastructure with gradual expansion cycles. In most cases, drainage systems were not designed to cope with the increase in extreme rainfall intensities that have occurred, and are expected to continue, so the threat of extreme weather events poses a very real concern.
The United Arab Emirates, for instance, has swiftly refocused its attention on the potential of flooding after the downpour and floods of 2019. The situation becomes more acute when the airport is located in a heavily urbanised area, floodplain or reclaimed land.
The closure of any airport can have a considerable economic, operational and, indeed, reputational impact on the city, region and even country it serves as when an international airport is inaccessible, the country it is located in along with its services are similarly affected.
While a storm may pass within a few hours, it can take several weeks, months or longer to rebuild and resume normal operations. And in cases like these, it is not just reputations that are at risk, but business itself.
Talking to The Guardian newspaper in October 2019, former Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, noted that ‘Firms ignoring climate crisis will go bankrupt,” either because their insurers will refuse to cover their asset(s) if they are clearly at risk, or through being punished by investors for not moving towards zero carbon emissions and thus ending up going bankrupt; so called ‘transitional risk’.
The insurance sector is no less vocal about this. The International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS) published a 2018 Issues Paper on Climate Change Risks to the Insurance Sector and AXA Insurance’s CEO, Thomas Buberl, has even warned that more than four degrees Celsius of warming this century would make the world “uninsurable”.
The closure of airports, of course, has a wider societal impact than the loss of a single business. For example, when Fiji’s main airport was closed due to flooding in 2012 following Cyclone Evan, it sent shockwaves through the country’s tourism industry and precipitated a major review of the airport’s business continuity plans.
During floods, airports can be a necessary lifeline for evacuations and the supply of relief goods; a key link in the chain of disaster response for cities and islands. So, being able to operate during extreme weather events, is not only important, it is essential.
Worth noting here is the fact that often it is not the extreme climate event itself that hurts the tourism industry, but an evident lack of preparedness to deal with such an occurrence.
This, in turn, can hurt the reliable image some countries require to be seen as a major tourism destination.
Several airport hubs have recognised the need for action and are now taking important steps to plan ahead and increase their resilience to this threat.
In recent years, airport planner, NACO, has worked closely with clients and their stakeholders at Amsterdam Schiphol in the Netherlands, Singapore Changi in Singapore and Kansai International Airport in Japan to identify in detail how climate change could impact on their respective assets and operations by carrying out scenario-based risk assessments and mapping potential vulnerabilities.
We have been actively involved in capturing the learnings from these projects in several papers and reports outlining how airports can take key steps towards resilience.
These have included ‘Preparing Singapore Changi Airport for the effects of climate change’ in the Journal of Airport Management and The Water Vision Schiphol 2030, developed by Nanco Dolman, which was recognised and included in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Private Sector Initiative data-base of adaptation actions.
Similarly, our client, Sebastien Lacoin, wrote about the learnings from the Kansai Airport flood in his article ‘Climate Change Resilience Strategy – Redefining Flood Protection At Kansai International Airport’, published in ICAO’s Environmental Report of 2019.
In other areas, Hong Kong
International Airport is also leading the way in terms of involving financial and insurance stakeholders in the airport resilience debate, led by the Task Force on Climate Funding Disclosure (TFCD).
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and Airport Council International (ACI) both play vital roles here. While ICAO sets the standards for future airport sustainability and resilience, ACI facilitates the process of changing and developing new standards using the types of valuable experience gained by member airports, as described previously.
One of the drivers behind the recent airport activity may be that they have come to realise that the potential cost of inaction is currently estimated to be four times the cost of action. Being proactive and thinking ahead might also help ensure the sustainable future of their airports.
About the authors
Vivek Sindhamani and Peter Vorage work for airport planning and design firm, NACO, and have extensive experience of the potential impact of climate change on airport infrastructure and operations.