Preparing for climate threats with adaptive management

It’s clear that climate change comes with new challenges and greater uncertainty. How should municipalities factor that uncertainty into decision-making when thinking about infrastructure investments in a changing environment? Here’s why adaptability is the key.

At the start of 2019, the World Meteorological Organization stated that the years 2015-2018 were the four warmest years on record and damage from severe weather across Canada in 2018 cost $1.9 billion. Fires, floods and storms of unprecedented size have affected communities in Canada from coast to coast. Those affected will long share the stories of the time they hunkered down, narrowly escaped or perhaps lost everything. As extreme weather events become more intense and more frequent, proactively protecting our communities — including our infrastructure and the services it delivers — is imperative.

Almost 60 per cent of Canada’s core public infrastructure is owned and maintained by municipal governments. Thus, municipalities are the ones left grappling with climate-threatened infrastructure and associated services. In total, $141 billion (12 per cent) out of $1.1 trillion of municipal infrastructure is in poor and very poor condition. Given that infrastructure in worse condition is more likely to fail due to extreme weather events, it is reasonable to estimate that over 12 per cent of Canada’s infrastructure is currently vulnerable to climate change impacts.

Infrastructure needs to be effectively managed in the face of climate change. To address the increased risk and uncertainty that arrives alongside climate change, our designs, organizations and processes need to be agile and adaptive.


Enhanced, adaptive designs

When it comes to climate resilience, our approach should be tailored to the situations at hand. Sometimes we will have to engineer larger and stronger infrastructure — but sometimes larger and stronger infrastructure is over-engineered and not financially viable or advisable. For many municipalities with already-stretched budgets, constructing assets to withstand major weather events can be financially unfeasible and unsustainable. Alternatively, adaptive design options, strategically selected using a risk-cost assessment approach, can be used.
Adaptive design strategies include :

  1. Infrastructure that can be adapted to accommodate climate change. For example, bridges that can be raised and buildings that can be easily modified.
  2. Infrastructure with shorter lifespans when there is a high level of uncertainty surrounding major threats. For example, buildings that may be strategically decommissioned as sea levels rise.
  3. Design approaches that design known weak points to fail during an adverse event, and that can be easily fixed post-event.
  4. Existing or new non-engineered solutions to provide protection. For example, marshes instead of berms for coastal protection.


Adaptive organizations

Adaptive designs are only one part of preparing infrastructure for climate change. To understand and manage the changing risk landscape, engineers, asset managers, climate scientists and other professionals will need to adjust their organizational structures to continue working collaboratively. Municipalities will need to leverage unique expertise from all perspectives and integrate a holistic approach into their municipal asset management programs.

To be an adaptive organization:

  1. Implement a business structure that accepts continual changes in design, operations, management and service delivery.
  2. Characterize future risks and determine alternative approaches to meet service delivery needs.
  3. Question the status quo and be open to markedly different approaches to services, infrastructure, systems, and procedures.
  4. Understand service risks at the asset and network level.
  5. Share successes to develop a culture that is proactive and drives continual improvement.


Adaptive processes

Infrastructure exists to provide a service. Current management approaches that are considered “adaptive” often tend to be simply reactive. For example, many times when a road washes out, it is repaired with a larger culvert “for next time.” Reactive processes do not provide a formal, proactive structure to assess and manage risk; rather, they provide a response once the consequence has been encountered. As climates change, asset managers must consider adaptation and alter risk appetites. Prioritizing work while maintaining a sustainable budget may require adjusting investment return periods. 

To identify appropriate risk targets:

  1. Understand what is achievable and optimize investments at a regional level. A holistic, interconnected service viewpoint must be taken.
  2. Upgrade the most critical infrastructure first. Rather than upgrading all infrastructure, critical infrastructure with the greatest impact on reliability, accessibility and the economy should be identified.
  3. Set more stringent risk targets for critical assets. Secondary standards can be set for less critical infrastructure, with use being restricted or even avoided during weather events.


Managing change today

Public support that leads to standards, funding programs and regulations to implement adaptive infrastructure management will eventually come to fruition. In the meantime, there are steps that municipalities and infrastructure managers can take toward a truly adaptive strategy. 

To develop adaptive strategies today, managers can:

  1. Define adaptive infrastructure management goals and objectives, and integrate them into organizational policies such as asset management policies and climate change policies.
  2. Redefine business processes to integrate adaptive infrastructure management into each part of the organization, and support staff throughout the organizational change.
  3. Ensure the organization is aware that some solutions may not fully solve the issue but will be a step in the right direction.
  4. Review service delivery uncertainties related to climate change and determine if they can be addressed by changing design standards or providing the service in a new way.
  5. Begin the preparation of a thorough disaster mitigation and response plan as risks cannot always be forecast and/or mitigated.


The impacts of climate change will be experienced, paid for, and remembered by people. In the end, it costs less and provides greater resiliency to begin adaptive measures now than it does to respond to future failures.


Simon Bush
Principal Consultant, Asset Management