U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Just 15 centimetres of fast flowing water is enough to knock us off our feet. That may come as a surprise to you: 15 centimetres is not that deep. In fact, 15 centimetres is just shy of the height of the new iPhone 8 Plus. It’s understandable to think that such a small depth of water couldn’t do much damage, but the surprising strength of water is one of the key reasons why, globally, more men than women die in floods. Men tend to underestimate risk, while women, are typically more cautious.

Our perception of risk is skewed, and so are, it turns out, our values. I recently attended a workshop on flood response. While there, I discovered that when given a flood warning, the public are hesitant to evacuate their homes. When they discover that floods cause power cuts, and power cuts mean no access to mobile phone charging, people are immediately more inclined to abandon ship.

Whether intentionally or not, we have created a society that is terrifyingly reliant on electricity and centralised services. Apart from a minority of people, mainly living in rural areas, our generation has no ability to fend for ourselves in the wake of natural or man-made disasters. If you want evidence, just look at what happened with the disastrous Channel 4 project: Eden, where 23 participants were tasked with living for a year in a remote part of Scotland attempting to build a self-sufficient society. They failed.

“Our perception of risk is skewed, and so are, it turns out, our values”

With a blackout for just seven days in the UK, chaos would ensue. Within 24 hours, our phones would run out of battery. There would be no internet. The supermarkets would be okay – several have back-up generators, but these are powered by diesel fuel, so there would be a mad dash to the petrol stations. Compounding the chaos in petrol stations, those of us with electric heating would be jumping in our cars for iPhone charge and warmth. After 3 days, having lost the pressure required to pump to houses, the water would stop flowing from the taps. This is when the queues at Tesco would really start to lengthen. There’d be no point stockpiling food because our fridges will all be obsolete, food festering inside. A few of us would start to get anxious. Of course, there would be limited opportunity to escape the island. The airports would be conserving their power for emergency situations. Planes can’t depart if the landing strip lights go off.

“Have we forgotten the most important link in the chain – a resilient society?”

It seems dramatic, but it’s not entirely implausible. To put your mind a rest, in the wake of unprecedented shock events in the last decade, the various powers that be are beginning to plan and mitigate this type of event. The concept of ‘resilience’ is now embedded in our national disaster response strategy. In fact, we’re a little obsessed with the term, believing that if we design our infrastructure to never fail, or to fail in a predictable manner, we can mitigate against the scenario depicted above. Nonetheless, that leaves one question to be asked. As we obsess as a society on building resilient communications, electricity, water and transport infrastructure, have we forgotten the most important link in the chain – a resilient society?


All the (blue) light we cannot see

In several small cities in sub-Saharan Africa power cuts are a daily occurrence. In most cases, power cuts last for a few hours, but sometimes, they last for days, on rare occasions, for weeks. And what do the people do? The same as always, they exist quite happily without electricity, they’ll have a mobile phone, perhaps a Nokia 3210 with 6 days’ worth of battery, they have small solar panels to charge that phone for weeks.

By developing such robust infrastructure, we have unwittingly created a society that is entirely reliant on centralised services. We are a generation of people that never needed to learn essential survival skills and who have 100% faith in the services provided to us. The question is, how can we prepare ourselves for the unexpected? Do we simulate monthly power cuts to get us prepared? Do we send the next generation of kids to the jungle for summer holidays?

We are entering a time of unprecedented threat from extreme weather events, cyber-attacks and global epidemics, all of which have occurred somewhere in the world in the last 5 years on a remarkable scale. The disaster that follows a hazard in not inevitable, but if we are to avoid catastrophe, we need to ask ourselves: how can we maintain our current quality of life, while being resilient to the risks posed to us in the 21st century?