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Energy blackouts and water outages

 

Quelle: Masterarbeit Mank, Isabel: Energy blackouts and water outages: A risk management approach towards raising awareness and assuming responsibility. Wien: TU-Wien und Diplomatische Akadmeie Wien, 2015.

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Abstract

Awareness of the risk of an energy blackout and its effects on the water sector are inadequate. It is undeniable that electricity is needed for water pumps and the mechanical treatment of wastewater. A gravitational water flow can avoid interdependency, which is regionally limited and should not be generalized. This work aims to raise awareness and assume responsibility in order to show that a risk for blackouts and water outages exist in industrialized countries and that planning and preparation are necessary. A risk management approach with five pillars is used as a guideline. The first pillar emphasizes the lack of examination of the effects of a power outage on the water sector. Today’s critical infrastructure is more complex and vulnerable to power outages than ever before. The causes for outages as covered by the second pillar include natural, societal and technical causes. A blackout does not need to be the disaster itself, but can be the result of heat waves or mismanagement. The consequences of blackouts and water outages, as described in pillar three, reach from a halt of water supply and low water quality to disrupted communication and social upheaval. Suddenly common behavioral structures are questioned and communication channels are cut. Missing communication means emphasize the need for in advance preparation and exchange between all stakeholders. Technical mitigation measures such as backup generators can only sustain daily life temporarily, while self-sufficient energy systems and renewable energy sources could provide electricity as energy islands. Social resilience and public/ private partnerships are additional management mechanisms assuring safe drinking-water and hygiene throughout the blackout. Several possible response measures are shared, although their application depends on a variety of aspects, for example: duration of the power outage; the amount of regions or countries concerned; and the season of the year. A fixed plan cannot be applied given that blackouts and water outages are unpredictable. Stakeholder interviews conducted in Austria and international case examples help to define awareness, perceptions and responsibilities towards blackouts and water outages in industrialized countries.

Introduction

In this regard, a blackout causing a water outage can cause disruption of daily life, when known cultural structures fall apart and order diminishes. [siehe Stromausfall brachte auch Probleme mit der Trinkwasserversorgung oder Erbeben in Nepal: Unruhen wegen TrinkwassermangelPreparation on the side of the stakeholders and the public is, therefore, essential to counteract the effects of disasters. Communication and active planning at an early stage are inevitable to respond to a blackout since they are disconnected in case of a short circuit.

Timely preparation and exchange between different stakeholders ranging from ministries, the Armed Forces and relief organizations to water providers, experts from wastewater treatment plants and the general public need to be emphasized and improved.

Public resilience and vulnerability are tightly connected to risks defined by risk awareness, a lack of preparation, coordination and response measures to assure safe drinking-water and hygiene on a daily basis. A risk assessment uncovers causes, hazards, effects and management mechanisms, while raising awareness on risks improve resilience and encourage the implementation of risk mitigation measures.

Methodology

Hazards linked to electricity blackouts have become a global concern and cannot be viewed in isolation from neighboring countries and regions. A concern in one sector impacts and requires action in another one and vice versa. This interdependency is related to increasing vulnerabilities, technological and socio-economic conditions, urbanization and climate variability to name just a few (UN/ISDR, 2007). The management of risk reduction continues to be a global challenge. Mitigation measures must be integrated into policies, plans and programs, while supporting regional, bilateral and international cooperation and collaboration. In order to encourage commitment at the individual, community and national level, awareness needs to be raised as it was done by the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, which took place in Sendai, Miyagi, Japan, in March 2015 (UN/ISDR, 2007 & 2015).

Risk analysis and risk management need to be combined because one or the other by itself would exclude correlations and insights (Castillo, 2014). For example, without informing and sharing information on risks with the population, they will not be prepared for possible consequences to make appropriate decisions. This results in ineffective mitigation and preparation measures (ASCE, 2009).

However, the effects a blackout could have on the water system are rarely in the focus of attention. Awareness of a direct correlation between an energy blackout and a water outage and subsequent action are missing in industrialized countries.

Despite several approaches in literature, the meaning and identification of a risk are complicated and controversial; and besides objective observations, risk perception strongly depends on individual mental constructions such as interpretations and responses influenced by social, political, economic and cultural contexts.

Risk perception is connected to uncertainties, tolerability, vulnerability, resilience as well as risk communication.

In many emergencies and disasters it is not the event itself that is dangerous, but the effects it has on the critical infrastructure, people and the environment (Levy & Bissell, 2013).

In the case of a blackout, it is not necessarily the power outage which causes a disaster as a direct cause. Moreover, vulnerability and a lack of preparation by the population and the stakeholders to cope with and to respond effectively to the disaster are of concern (WHO et al., 2013). The consequences are substantial and complex, wherefore approaches must go beyond normal or traditional crisis management principles and practices (Bissell, 2013).

Reasoning a focus on water outages

In Austria, the daily per capita supply of drinking-water is about 135 liter, which is delivered to ninety percent by 5500 central water supply systems of different size. The other ten percent account for around one million Austrians, who have their own water supply, e.g. household wells (Ministry of Life, 2014).

The loss of high-qualitative water due to a blackout or any other reason can have many cascading effects halting the operation of hospitals, restaurants and wastewater treatment plants.

So far 94.5 percent of the Austrian population is connected to municipal sewage systems including wastewater treatment
plants larger than 50 population equivalent.

A blackout affects the financial market, people and many more sectors difficult to define, according to the WTP Vienna. For the interviewee, these unpredictable effects make any planning impossible and take up too much time and resources (Interview WTP Vienna, 2015). This leads to the assumption that there is awareness, which is yet based on individual perception and unstructured knowledge on the causes and effects of a water outage in an industrialized country. The problem is that risk awareness and interest cannot be increased by success outcomes or financial benefits due to losses and damages provoked by a disaster. A risk interest is necessary to conduct effective risk management, because otherwise ideas on how to address a risk are difficult to develop (Keegan, 2004).

Indirect costs are likely to exceed direct ones by up to five times, which proves that also not so obvious costs and effects need to be integrated in the analysis (Bruch et al., 2011; Petermann et al., 2011).

In Austria, the municipalities have to carry the financial costs for damages critical infrastructure and for prevention measures (Interview MOTI, 2015).

The Austrian Disaster Fund guarantees that a certain amount of tax revenues are available for disaster risk reduction measures. Unfortunately, no detailed information was found on the kind of risks included besides a fund for flooding and avalanche reduction.

On March 17, 2015, Austria submitted its “National Progress Report on the Implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action (2013-2015)” as mentioned earlier reflecting on its new security strategy called “Security in a new Decade – Shaping Security”. Inside the report the ministry states that “natural hazards are well documented, while technical or multi-hazard situation need to be investigated in more detail”. Subsequently, this statement correlates with the assumptions made above that awareness exists for some areas such as floods, but it is missing for others such as power outages. The report states furthermore that exposure to hazards needs to be reduced and resilience of the people improved by providing training and education, ensuring better cooperation between relevant stakeholders and conducting further risk assessments in the upcoming years (Staudinger, 2015).

On the international level the availability of publications on blackouts and water outages has been more successful. In 2012, Switzerland published a risk analysis on several hazards including the risk of a power outage for their country (Hillson, 2004). [siehe auch Risikobericht 2015 bzw. Katastrophen und Notlagen Schweiz – Risikobericht 2012]

Investment in mitigation measures is considered effective for reducing and preventing high costs and economic losses. Even if a blackout may not be considered cost intensive, indirect costs such as human suffering need to be included in calculations. Though they are difficult to quantify, indirect costs tend to be five times higher than direct costs making any mitigation measure financially profitable even if the target group may never be hit (Levy & Bissell, 2013).

Identifying causes for hazards and their likelihood

Hence, water or power outages are rarely the actual disaster, but are more likely to be effects of a disaster. For example, the natural disaster has a direct effect on the power supply and an indirect effect on the water system. Indirect effects are difficult to predict, seem unimaginable at the current point in time and yet can cause long lasting consequences to the population (Bissell, 2013).

Causes, hazard and effects

Risk diagram CHE

The Swiss ministry published a risk diagram contrasting each risk potential within the environmental, societal and technical causes (Figure 5). According to the experts a power outage has one of the highest probabilities and frequencies compared to other risks including heat, flooding and terrorist attacks, though the economic damage of a power outage is on average low compared, for example, to earthquakes or epidemics (Hohl et al., 2013).

For Austria, the highest risk identified by the Ministry of the Interior is a heat wave as it has been expressed as the most probable risk with the most severe outcomes.

Uncertainties

“Also wenn wir jetzt […] über einen Stromausfall sprechen, in ganz Österreich, dann ist das natürlich ein worst-case Szenario mit dem man sich beschäftigen kann. Die Frage ist, kann das wirklich realistisch eintreten?” (Interview MOTI, 2015).

A comprehensible question asked by the ministry is “whether a blackout all over Austria is actually realistic?” Laugé et al. (2013) would answer this question with “yes”, because they state that the likelihood of cascaded events tends to be underestimated. Though there are uncertainties in defining risks, long-term impacts such an event can have on the quality of life, the economy and the environment are also often more severe than expected (Laugé et al., 2013). It is important to expect the worst as long as it is still reasonable to do so.

In general, crisis management does not begin with the crisis itself, but with awareness of vulnerabilities and an assessment of potential disasters that may occur (Prisching, 2008).

Societal causes

Terrorism plays an important part nowadays since our society highly depends on the critical infrastructure and would be a target of high profile. The destruction of electrical supply, the sabotage of water and wastewater treatment systems or the dispersion of toxic chemicals in water would not only quickly hit important stakeholders, but also all parts of society including industries and healthcare facilities. Chemical attacks could affect a whole region, nation and even continent while the base would be located thousands of kilometers away (DHS/OCIA, 2014; Levy & Bissell, 2013). This would spread fear and anxiety for a long period of time causing panic throughout the society. Hence, human-caused attacks can be internationally or nationally caused by insiders or outsiders (Van Leuven, 2011).

Cyber-attacks “include the intent of individuals or groups to electronically corrupt or seize control of data or information essential to system operations”. This takes into account the manipulation or retrieval of information from a system or the acquisition of supervisory control and data (SCADA) over the network comprising computers and applications. SCADA systems are increasingly used for the control of water pumps and valves from remote locations, focusing on the improvement of the functionality but not on the security of the system. [siehe etwa Simuliertes Wasserwerk wurde sofort angegriffen oder Scada-Sicherheit: Angriff auf Steuerungsanlagen] Cyber-attacks also include the retrieval or manipulation of maps, security plans, financial documents and all other documents that are stored electronically (Van Leuven, 2011). They can be accessed either by a hacker or through access within the organization as it was described in Mark Elsberg’s novel “Blackout” (2012). Especially terrorism and cyber-attacks cannot be predicted or easily controlled wherefore a certain risk always exists. [siehe Hybride Bedrohungspotenziale im Lichte der Vernetzung und Systemischen Denkens] It may be enough already to attack a single power plant, which could cause difficulties on the side of the power providers to hold the voltage of the grid leading to a domino effect.

Uncertainties in work force availability require a lot of flexibility on the side of the management. Compared to the Armed Forces, many organizations do not and cannot force the employees to arrive at the office in case of a disaster (Interview MOTI, 2015). Incentives such as the availability of backup generators, heating, food and water are needed in order to give the employees a motivation to come to work and to help out whenever needed. This could improve reliability of employees and the overall response (Interview WTP Vienna, 2015).

Consequently, the Austrian grid is not threatened by an underload as previously expected, but by an overload during peak hours due to a high influx of electricity from different sources (Reichl & Schmidthalter, 2011).

An underling hazard to the water sector is a lack of knowledge on stakeholder responsibilities.

However, the ministry does not have access to information of relief organizations, but can only demand it if required. This seems unlikely since the organizations work in trust and believe that one or the other is prepared in case a water outage occurs.

Responsibilities

The coordination of the different groups and levels within the groups such as in and between volunteer organizations is a difficult task, but essential during disasters. Differences in culture, policies and response procedures complicate responses and can cause loss of time. This may, for example, be the case if there are not enough volunteers or equally if there are too many. In order to be aware of organizational differences and rules regular events, joint policy developments, trainings and exercises should be organized that can help bridging the knowledge gaps and enhance understanding and cooperation when it is needed without delay. Furthermore, a plan defining different tasks of the volunteers and organizations can help during the response later on. A detailed structure with defined responsibilities can prevent confusion and blame, and can close knowledge gaps in the response process (Ruback et al., 2013).

If no one feels responsible or no tasks have been assigned, areas or population groups may not be looked after. Gaps in knowledge on responsibilities also became slightly visible during the interviews. Two stakeholders confirmed that they are not sure who is responsible and how the issue is usually solved.

Although the discharge of wastewater is not in the responsibility of many, it was mentioned as one of the main problems several times.

Crisis communication

A decision-making process without the inclusion of every single business becomes unimaginable due to our interconnected network and expertise (Levy & Bissell, 2013). Those include governments, municipalities, Armed Forces, non-governmental organizations, economic and scientific inst itutions, private and public providers and consumers to name only a few (Cooper et al., 2004; Hohl et al., 2012). The inclusion of experts of critical infrastructure was mentioned as highly important since they have a central role in the prevention and response mechanisms in case of a disaster (Hohl et al., 2013). At the time of Hurricane Katrina (2005), USA, a lack of coordination and communication between the different stakeholders was easily observable proving that a risk assessment and a response plan are necessary, but also require adaptation to the circumstances (Ruback et al., 2013).

Cooperation between different stakeholders is essential for any analysis and decision. Different groups are needed at different times and for different tasks because of the unique nature of catastrophes (McEntire, 2013).

The Austrian Civil Protection Association (ACPA) (Österreichischer Zivilschutzverband) is an organization that actively includes the population and tries to improve their resilience, which will have a positive feedback on the rescue teams and allows more time for coordination. Therefore, it is even more surprising that the ACPA has only been mentioned by the interviewee of the Austrian RC, but not by the others. Their task is to inform the population about the correct behavior in emergency sit uations and about civil defence; to promote self-protection behavior through events, presentations and speeches; to coordinate different associations; to seek collaboration with the ministries and emergency organizations; and so on (BMI, nn; Staudinger, 2015). The ACPA even published a short “blackout” brochure, which was not mentioned by one of the interviewees and found by surprise. This allows room for stronger cooperation as it was mentioned by the Austrian RC themselves, who agreed to promote each other and to work together as much as possible.

Cross-border support, however, strongly depends on the extent of the blackout. If it affects whole areas of Europe, cross-border support may be limited.

To sum up, the power grids are nowadays more specialized and advanced than ever before, which likewise increased the vulnerability of people to electricity failures (Levy & Bissell, 2013). Though the perception and likelihood for a risk differs between stakeholders, natural, societal and technological causes are not as unlikely as often assumed. The division of tasks, responsibilities and capabilities can be especially helpful if disasters are too complex to assure response by one group or if resources are limited (Nakashima et al., 2014). A “bottom-up” approach” is recommendable, even though it is more time consuming and can be more expensive. It allows better understanding and fosters collaboration, development and coordination within and between all levels (Levy & Bissell, 2013). An integrated risk communication plan can increase awareness and empathy towards application of precautionary measures and help to maintain a certain living standard (Government of Canada, 2003) [siehe integrierte Sicherheitskommunikation].

The difficulty of all causes for water and power outages provided is that the named hazards are naturally occurring and are often out of reach of human control. Municipalities have the responsibility to prevent disaster, but also to coordinate the local response. They rely on the support of first responders, who though may in the worst case even hinder an effective response if tasks are not assigned appropriately. On the other side, the Armed Forces follow primarily a military responsibility and are not a disaster response team. Hence, in order to complement the existing disaster response structure, the implementation of a THW, that similar to the RC works voluntarily, could be negotiated. The main difference is that the experts of the THW are trained in different critical infrastructures and are in detail selected depending on their knowledge and experience. However, with one more additional group, it also has to be assured that more stakeholders do not lead to more confusion and uncertainty.

Assessing the effects of power and water outages

Blackout 2003, USA/Kanada: The power was cut for eight to nine days in the region due to a software bug and cost one to two billion Canadian dollars solely for Ontario in Canada. The main problems were the refilling of backup systems with fuel; the congestion of the telephone lines, while the phone system was quickly available again due to the use of batteries; and the connection wholes of the internet; while printing machines continued working because backup systems were used. Also television stations continued broadcasting, though many recipients in the critical area were not able to receive the information. This is compared to radio stations, which continued airing and were received by many recipients who equally used battery equipment (Petermann et al., 2011).

Impact assessment on the effects of a blackout

Table 3 gives a short overview and idea on the effects of a blackout, while additionally expressing severity, controls in place and actions planned. Indirect impacts such as (1) the halt of pressurized water due to a loss of pumping stations; (2) the loss of access to safe drinking-water; (3) a lack of water for sanitation and hygiene such as through contamination; (4) the halt of wastewater treatment; and (5) a lack of preparatory measures in order to react to a water outage are more difficult to define and harder to estimate (Chang et al., 2008).

The water sector is often indirectly affected either through a cascade of events leading up to the contamination of water or the leakage of a water pipe, or by threatening adequate healthcare in hospitals and hygiene at home (WHO et al., 2013). These are often unpredictable and complex consequences of direct hazards (Laugé et al., 2013). Effects are also influenced by the hour of the day, the day of the week, the season of the year and the current weather. While in summer a higher amount of electricity is needed for cooling, the same is the case for heating in winter. A blackout occurring over a small area receives quickly help from within the country as well as from neighboring countries. The wider the area is the more difficult will it be to build up the electrical flow again or to provide support (Hohl et al., 2013).

Direct impacts of a blackout include (6) the halt of telecommunication and (7) the distortion of daily life. It may harm the water availability, quality and treatment, but also the communication between stakeholders to organize water provision and with the population to provide assurance and confidence in a quick repair of the problem. If this is not assured social upheaval and aggression are not unlikely. The mentioned aspects are discussed below considering their intrinsic connection to water provision and a power outage.

The first impression when talking to different stakeholders is that there is no risk for the Austrian water sector. Even if there is no gravitational water flow other means will be found to assure a constant and safe supply such as by high-level water tanks or bottled water (Interview Austrian RC, 2015).

Anyhow, not all areas of Vienna, approximately five percent, as well as other regions in Austria are that blessed with gravitational flow and rely on pumps.

High-level water storage tanks can substitute a water provision in case of a blackout. However, the water storage tanks have a limited capacity and can only supply the population at locations below the tank, but not at the higher areas. And even once the tanks are empty, which usually takes around two days, immediate reaction is needed to find alternative solutions.

Subsequently, not only drinking-water, but also wastewater transmission and treatment need electricity (Figure 10). The wastewater treatment plant in Vienna consumes around one percent of the total energy use in Vienna, which is low for developed countries, but in general a big amount (Gude, 2015; Interview WTP Vienna, 2016).

Technical elements in the water supply and the electricity dependency

During the Northeast blackout in the USA in 2003, increased incident of gastrointestinal diseases have been observed in New York City (Beatty et al., 2006).

Most of the energy is used to pump the wastewater between different heights, which is especially the case for long distance pipelines that rely on several leveling throughout the way. The motors of the pumps require most of the energy with eighty percent of the total energy consumption by the wastewater treatment plant. Gravitation decreases the demand immensely and allows the wastewater to flow independent of energy availability, if the city is constructed on a certain height with the wastewater treatment plant at the lowest point (Gude, 2015). Secondly, electricity is necessary for the treatment of the wastewater.

During the northeast blackout in the US, the backup generators of the wastewater treatment plant failed to work, wherefore over 1.9 billion liter untreated sewage floated into the recreational waterways surrounding the affected city. This posed danger to the health of the population and their environment, wherefore the area had to be closed to prevent infections (Beatty et al., 2006). The Danube would be threatened by a similar case. The wastewater treatment plant in Vienna does not currently own a backup generator or any other energy source to assure the mechanical and biological treatment of the wastewater before it is released into an open water source.

Given the unpredictability of the disaster causing the blackout and water outage, chemicals, toxins, oils and solid wastes could be included in the wastewater making any kind of treatment even more difficult. The effect would be a high amount of toxins such as ammonium and phosphate flowing into the open water source killing fish and increasing the amount of algae, which take up a lot of oxygen.

Fortunately in case of an immediate blackout when the plant would come to a complete halt the good bacteria would at least continue treating the water until the point when all good bacteria die due to the lack of oxygen. They can usually survive for a minimum of two to three days without an addition of oxygen, but everything beyond this time would be deadly.

Disrupted communication

In order to communicate properly and effectively, exchange should have taken place before the power and water outages.

For example in Germany, the water sector by itself already counts around 6200 suppliers. These are very heterogenic in customers and location and have different perceptions on risks and effective crisis management (Petermann et al., 2011).

Private information and wrong news can quickly spread and strongly influence the population negatively (Schwab & Beatley, 2013).

For example, immigrants need to be informed differently than national citizens. They might use different information channels and require brochures in their mother tongue in order to overcome language barriers and cultural differences.

In this regard, a community-based approach should be prioritized to an organizational approach (WHO et al., 2013). When it comes to prevention, resilience and similar topics, the importance of communication and cooperation is undeniable.

Social upheaval and unrest

Water and power outages by themselves will not yet create a disaster, but the social perception, resilience and response contributes immensely to the effects. Our daily life is influenced by machines, equipment, computers, heating and cooling, communication and entertainment and so on, which a blackout would bring to an immediate halt. How such a halt would affect the behavior of people is marginally empirically analyzed. It is known that the feeling of not receiving any information and not knowing how long the water outage will last are especially of concern for people. A power outage causes stress and highlights the feeling of dependency, which may cause aggression and depression. On the contrary such a disaster can also lead to fascination and closer ties between neighbors and families (Petermann et al., 2011).

Independently, security forces need to be in place to regulate the general safety such as prevention of crime when the alarm systems and metal detectors stop working and they need to assure fair and safe distribution of resources. Those resources include water and food as well as medication (Interview MOTI, 2015; Levy & Bissell, 2013).

Not only transportation and buildings would need protection, but also the companies that have backup generators and water storages. Aggression and upheaval might occur once they know who has heating and food.

For the company (e. g. water supply) itself, such an upheaval and anger cannot only result in adverse economic impacts, but also damage the reputation of the service provider (DHS/OCIA, 2014). Firstly, they may have lacked preparation and will need to take responsibility for their unawareness. Secondly, if an organization acts too late, too slow or uncoordinated they will be held reliable at some point in time. Hence, a lack of communication between the stakeholders can equally cause a loss in reputation. Furthermore, stress and frustration of rescue teams can cause a slowdown of aid. Communication and collaboration is therefore essential to prevent criticism and to assure loyalty and calmness within the population and the teams (Petermann et al., 2011).

The population needs to be sensitized for a delay in support, the possibility of water and power outage and the affects they may have on their living such as a lower hygiene and sleep deprivations due to a lack of heating or cooling (Bissell, 2013). Such knowledge would encourage people to take their own responsibility and become more resilient in case such an event happens. For example, crisis scenarios can be played through in workshops and personal emergency plans can be created to improve resilience (Bundesheer, 2012).

One resilient person can encourage and motivate many others enhancing them to equally express humanity, altruism, resilience and carrying following and during the disaster (Prisching, 2008).

Organizations and rescue teams can lower the negative effects as long as preventive communication and planning has taken place before the occurrence of the blackout.

Management mechanisms for safe drinking-water and hygiene

This internal plan should address questions such as

  • Which resources are available?
  • Who needs to be contacted?
  • What is the scope of the intervention?
  • Which types of threats need to be addressed?
  • What are the major organization’s vulnerabilities?

The main purpose is to constrain the risk rather than to eliminate it and to raise awareness rather than to deny it.

Possibilities to raise awareness and attract action within institutions

Exchange of information and communication through different means can substantially contribute to raising awareness, thus leading to action. In order to address the risk of a water outage it must be considered as a priority on the national and local level and on the European and international level. Such a prioritization on the governmental level and/or between organizations can encourage businesses and municipalities to take action and to provide direction for emergency risk management (WHO et al., 2013).

The first circumstance mentioned by several stakeholders that drew their attention to blackouts was due to the increased information on the weaknesses of the European electricity grid and the resulting regular interventions. As a consequence, the wastewater treatment plant in Vienna decided to form a working group in summer 2014, where they discussed the electricity dependency and the effects a blackout could have on the system. Their conclusion is that a risk analysis for a blackout can only be done for a maximum of a week. Any analysis exceeding this time frame would be unpredictable and beyond imagination.

Besides publishing news and giving workshops, a third option of raising awareness is through environmental and political actions. This includes setting up environmental monitoring systems, more stringent land-use or counter terrorism policies, and information-sharing technologies between states, organizations and stakeholders (Bissell, 2013).

A fourth important point is to raise public awareness, which can contribute to the follow up on frameworks and encourage the implementation of disaster risk response measures.

The most effective way to raise attention to blackouts in different age groups and across households seems to be through the book “Blackout” published by Mark Elsberg in 2011. All interviewees asked had read the novel and seemed to have derived a lot of their knowledge and assumptions of it. Since the novel covers the topic in an entertaining way attention can be caught easily, especially once public discussions are organized subsequent to the publication.

Relocation as a response measure for a blackout and water outage?

The Ministry of the Interior proposes to people, who have no other obligations or reasons to stay in the city, to move to the countryside and to relatives or friends for the time being rather than to stay in the city. There they can be more independent falling back on forest wood for fires and lakes or rivers for water supply.

An alternative option to an evacuation would be to provide plastic bags or to set up Dixi toilets that allow for safe disposal in designated area.

The City of Kobe decided to set up temporary toilets at sixty sites in the city and in schools and another 300 temporary toilet units are now stored in warehouses and elsewhere and can be retrieved easily in case of need. This was a response to the Kobe earthquake when many buildings as well as schools used as evacuation units were found flooded with human waste and odor because no other means were shared with people on how and where to defecate when water supply had stopped. The hygienic situation was critical due to a lack of cleaning tools, which could have resulted in an outbreak of diseases. Subsequently, cleaning water for the mobile toilets is needed and could be addressed, for example, by retaining swimming pool water and rainwater. In addition to the temporary toilets, manholes have been installed in parks and other places and are now connected to the city’s sewage system (City of Kobe, 2010).

The Ministry of the Interior assumes no threat with regard to the disposal of feces or wastewater, while the Austrian RC promotes an evacuation in case disaster strike in summer and the wastewater were not flowing away or pumped out of the system, because it might cause a critical hygienic situation (Interview Austrian RC, 2015).

This demonstrates that even if the supply of water is not a problem, the disposal will be. Therefore, both aspects should not be looked at separately, but equally require preparation and discussion.

Backup generators and other means of technical preparation

Technical preparation in order to prevent a lack of water or a halt of wastewater treatment in case of a blackout is essential, but its ability to assure a continuous energy flow over an undefinable period of time is questionable.

Several locations in Austria are not that lucky. They receive their water from deep wells and hence rely on electricity to pump up water into high-level water storage tanks as is the case for Bad Fischau. For them planning, cooperation, communication and awareness-raising are essential. The primary and most obvious mitigation measure to plan for a water outage due to a blackout would be the organization of backup generators that allow the motor of the pumps to continue working.

Hence, stakeholders do not need to aim for a continuous supply of water and treatment of the wastewater in case of a blackout, but should consider, for example, a secure shut down of the facility so that no harm is or can be done and assuring the functioning of other vital equipment. This could include safety doors and observation stations at entrances, fire alarm equipment, computers, gas detectors, communication media, charging stations for rechargeable batteries for mobile lamps and so on (Interview WTP Vienna, 2015). In the case of wastewater treatment plants this could mean that the plant runs only a minimal treatment process. Then the water is not treated to the same amount as under routine conditions, but at least as much as possible.

The interviewee of the wastewater treatment plant in Laxenburg decided that the most important task is the removal of solid wastes from the wastewater including toilet paper. Subsequently, Laxenburg owns a backup system that contains at least 200 liter of fuel, which should last for around two days, according to the interviewee.

It is a mobile backup system that is stored at a local place in the center of the village. It can be used whenever needed to remove the solid wastes and to start the pumps so that they transfer wastewater from one area to the next ending up in the plant. Afterwards, the backup system is used for the hydraulic moves and integrates air to the process allowing good bacteria to metabolize the organic content in the wastewater. This needs to be done for maximum of a day and then the plant can function again by itself for another day or two, during which time the backup system can be used by the other two stakeholders for their tasks (Interview WTP Laxenburg, 2015).

Such a sharing mechanism seems to be a good solution especially when the probability of harm is considered low and the costs for mitigation measures are high. A shared mobile backup generator has several positive benefits for providers such as a wastewater treatment plant.

The cited wastewater treatment plant already had the experiences that the power was cut for around eight hours and a second time for around twelve hours. In both cases the plant had no problems with a continuous biological treatment. Subsequently, the plant would be able to continue treating water for another three to four days without electricity depending on the time and season of the year and the treatment efficiency aimed for (Interview WTP Laxenburg, 2015). This is only possible for smaller plants. The wastewater treatment plant in Vienna would not be able to cover its electricity demand with a backup generator given the amount of fuel it would need in order to maintain the operation (Interview WTP Vienna, 2015; Petermann et al., 2011).

The first alternative solutions to backup generators are renewable energy sources, which are not only a sustainable solution, but also decrease the environmental impact (Gude, 2015). The drinking-water operator in Bad Fischau is currently considering the introduction of a photovoltaic system that could produce the energy needed for water pumps. This project is a cooperation between Bad Fischau and the EVN Group and is intended to not only reduce the dependence on the interlinked energy supply, but also to reduce the overall costs. One of the main questions that need to be answered is where the photovoltaic panels could be placed due to their big dimensions and heavy weight.

The hours of sunlight should not be a problem, but rather the amount of energy that photovoltaics can produce and the question whether this is enough for water transmission. An example is given comparing the calculated results for the energy production of a solar panel and the energy need of a water pump.

An option would be to combine renewable energy sources with an energy selfsufficient system that produces its own energy, creates an independent source of energy and acts in case of a power outage (Petermann et al., 2011). Self-sufficient energy systems seem to be a good alternative option for wastewater treatment plants as was done in Kobe City (Interview Kobe City, 2015b).

A fourth alternative to backup generators would be mechanical energy, which is already of major importance in disasters.

Supplying, treating and storing water for direct consumption at home

While Vienna in specific and Austria in general have water tanks that can store water up to at least a few days, their amount is limited depending on the size of the tanks, the season of the year and the duration of the water outage. The high-level water storage tank is usually only filled with more or less sixty percent of the possible capacity, which would last for around two days. In winter the tank is filled with slightly more water than in summer since not that much water is used. In the summer, however, water use is much higher due to increased watering of the garden and hence almost no water is stored in the tank, but just runs through (Interview DWP Bad Fischau, 2015). Subsequently, water tanks are a short-term solution only.

Refining cooperation and public involvement

Preparation is important on all sides, not just one stakeholder or one organization, but everybody, in order to prevent or lessen the effects and consequences of a disaster.

Since the supply of backup generators is often limited to a few hours up to a maximum of a few days, the risk of a water outage should not only be addressed by the means of technical devices, but also by cooperation and collaboration between different stakeholders and the public (Bruch et al., 2011). Unfortunately, soft approaches tend to be neglected since they are hardly visible compared to new technological gadgets and cannot be measured on the basis of money spent regardless of the actual efficiency (Menoni, 2001). Preventive measures are most likely applied if an observable financial profit can be witnessed by applying measures (Levi & Bissell, 2013). Managerial and societal approaches such as strengthening resilience among employees and the population thus receive only little credit, though they often represent prevention measures close to “zero” costs (Menoni, 2001).

Training of personnel

An option to overcome a lack of coordination, training courses with simulations could be undertaken. This said the technical preparation can only be as good as the human preparation is and is otherwise likely to fail (Menoni, 2001).

Public involvement

Before a disaster may have the chance to occur, it is essential to raise awareness among the population of industrialized nations since they usually have the financial and storagerelated means to sore resources and in order to assure that they also take responsibility for their life in case of an emergency and do not only rely on outside support. The WHO emphasizes a bottom-up and community-based approach, which includes not only passive participation in decision-making processes, but also active involvement in training and education to enhance a change of attitude and awareness of the population and to create an environment of health, safety and resilience (WHO et al., 2013). Awareness-raising plays an essential role not only to increase the resilience, but also to decrease the likelihood of being affected. Given, that water or power outages are abstract in developed countries and often associated with severe weather events or terrorism attacks that take place in other countries than the own, the perceived likelihood is in general low.

People need to be informed about threats and risks, be motivated to store resources and increase the ability to help themselves by knowing water purification technologies (Petermann et al., 2011). The population will most likely not know how to use water treatment units, which can be especially dangerous when this lack of knowledge becomes obvious during the disaster (Ray & Jain, 2014). Therefore, the share of information on preventive measures and their application before and during a disaster plays an essential role and can be done via media channels, trainings and workshops or online via brochures (WHO et al., 2013).

Hence, one of the main target groups should be young adults and students at universities. They should be prepared for disasters and learn how to act, to conduct first response and to treat, for example, water apart from similar first response mitigation measures. Such information is especially important since volunteers can also hinder the work of rescue teams. A second target group should be children. They need to be educated about altruism and helpfulness to neighbors, vulnerable population groups and friends (Interview Austrian RC, 2015). Sharing such values can improve the response and support within the population immensely allowing the organizations to focus on the most in need. Poor people and those with disabilities are usually more affected and vulnerable to emergencies than their healthy and educated counterparts (WHO et al., 2013). The population can help in such cases for which they need to be made aware.

Once the population knows where they will receive information and support, a constant communication exchange and trust towards the stakeholders can be assured.

In this regard, organizations and institutions do not need to aim for a continuing electricity supply, but to support and guide the population as good as possible in taking active preparatory steps.

Active preparation is essential in order to assure resilience and be less dependent on outside help. This is also the case for the stakeholders, who should either rely on backup generators, renewable energy sources or self-sufficient energy systems.

Some mitigation measures may not seem cost-effective for industries or businesses, while experience though shows that a lack of mitigation measures can have severe consequences for the public.

Implementing risk mitigation mechanisms

First of all, implementation is not possible without risk awareness. Awareness of a direct correlation between an energy blackout and a water outage seems to exist in theory, but is missing in practice.

The water sector is the first one to come to a halt. With hour zero the population relies on own stored water sources and the help of first responders. At the same time or at least within the first day, the water stored in the toilet will come to an end depending on how often the toilet is flushed.

Timeline of effects on water risk management caused by a blackout

Emergency power is the most important aspect in case of a blackout. It can last the longest as backup generators work up to two days and fuel in cars is available for three to six days. If the fuel is rationalized it may even last for up to one month. These are all only approximate values dependent on the location, preparation means in place and season, but can help as a guideline to define priorities. In the end mitigation mechanisms should exist for at least a week. This is the time it took in Kobe, Germany, Canada and Los Angeles until the electricity and/ or water supply was back again. 

Implementation options to mitigate the effects of a water and power outage

Although, water pumps will stop working immediately following a power outage, the water provision and wastewater disposal may not be the first problem, a lack of planning certainly is.

So far there is a lot of trust between different stakeholders without knowing what the other one is doing or not doing. For example, neither of the interviewees felt responsible for the wastewater disposal and the assurance of water for hygienic matters though this is an essential part of the daily life.

In the end, it does not only depend on the stakeholders to take action and to apply plans, but also on the population to make compromises, to prepare and to share ideas.

Conclusion

“[…] Wir sprechen von einem Szenario, wo wir zwar Thesen aufstellen können und Szenarien abbilden und auch theoretisch durchspielen, aber in der Praxis ist das nicht gegeben. Und jetzt muss man natürlich sagen, das heißt der Amokhirsch Blackout, was jetzt so auch ein Amokschwert ist, nämlich insofern, dass wahrscheinlich keiner wirklich genau sagen kann, wie eskaliert’s und wie schnell eskaliert‘s“ (Interview Austrian RC, 2015).

The causes for a blackout and a water outage are as diverse as the effects a blackout can have on the daily life including water supply, water quality and wastewater disposal. With the help of a risk management approach a reference to the objectives mentioned in Chapter 2.1. and a variety of additional insights have been given. The objectives are to (1) define and analyze the threat a blackout can have on the water system; (2) express the necessity of planning with and integrating of different stakeholders in the decision-making process, trainings and workshops; and (3) show the necessity to communicate with different groups before a disaster may occur. The overall aim is to raise awareness, attract attention and assume responsibility for risks associated with a water outage caused by a blackout that cause severe disruption of daily life.

The most important conclusion is those risks always exist. There can never be a “zero-risk”, because either the severity of harm or the probability of occurrence of a hazard exists, causing the risk to be greater than zero. Due to the increased interconnectedness of today’s energy grid, the critical infrastructure and life in general, there are not only positive conclusions to be drawn, but also the amount o f possible threats have exponentially increased. This work shall help closing the lack of publications defining the connection between blackouts and water outages and the need for mitigation measures. Risk assessments and implementation of prevention measures are cost- and time-intensive, but economic damages are equally high and indirect costs such as human suffering cannot be quantified. Even if the probability of a disaster may be very low, the gain from prevention from a human perspective is priceless.

Early planning and preparation including all possible stakeholders are necessary due to the variety of causes for a blackout and water outage and the diversity of sectors within the critical infrastructure that are hit. A blackout must not be the disaster itself, but can be caused by natural, societal or technical events. Positive developments, for instance increased interconnectedness between technological systems or mobile phones, bring new problems with them. For example, changes in the energy sector towards increased implementation of renewable energy sources may lead to an overload of the energy grid due to peak loads; improved technology make the system more complex and defective providing reference points for cyber-attacks; or more extreme climate events such as winds and flooding may break electricity transmission lines and contaminate open water sources. In all cases the energy and water sector would directly or indirectly be affected and come to a complete halt.

Domino effects are the most threatening for today’s society and yet create a vulnerability paradox contradicting the perception of risk and reality. An assumption of a low likelihood or a denial of a possible blackout due to a lack of local experiences or the perception that no preparations can be taken either way lead to low or no preparation measures at all increasing the severity of the consequences. For example, if no organization feels responsible for the wastewater disposal, the outcome might be a lack of hygienic behavior and waterborne diseases due to the contamination of open water sources. An approached discussed was to conduct public/ private partnerships with beverage suppliers or mobile toilet providers. A contract would speed up and simplify the response rather than waiting until the disaster occurs. This said, in case of a blackout the means to communicate to stakeholders are limited to nonexistent.

Traditional telecommunication via mobile phones is ceased and only satellite communication and radios work for a few more days as long as backup generators or car batteries are available. Mobility is limited to bikes and by foot, emphasizing the need to communicate early on. First responders and on the spot volunteers are essential in case of disasters due to their local knowledge and early on availability. They need to be trained in first response mechanisms and simple water treatment technologies. If this is not the case, response might be delayed or even miscommunicated causing distrust and anger with proceeding time. Independent of how and when communication takes place, the goal of respective stakeholders should be to minimize human suffering, to keep economic losses low and to assure the continuity of daily life as much as possible.

Several management mechanisms exist of which the essential ones are awareness-raising and the attraction of attention. Risk perceptions and tolerability depend on mental constructions, resilience and vulnerabilities. Subsequently, mitigation measures need to be adapted according to the region, the population density, the existence of vulnerable groups such as migrants or the elderly, and the environmental threats and potentials. There is not a sole risk management guideline that can be created or applied, but flexibility and a situational analysis are required to increase effectiveness. Independently, certain mechanisms can be implemented that can constrain the risks and effects. One point that applies to all disasters is the importance of being aware and communicating before a disaster occurs, and to prepare actively applying technological, societal and managerial approaches. Awareness is the first step, but it is not enough since blackouts and water outages pose nowadays major risks to industrialized countries.

 

Kommentar

Eine ausgezeichnete und lesenswerte Forschungsarbeit! Leider werden wieder zahlreiche Annahmen und eigene Erfahrungen bestätigt. Daher einmal mehr ein Hinweis darauf, dass unsere Lebensweise massiv verwundbar ist und wir kaum adequate Antworten darauf haben. Zahlreiche Aussagen passen auch zu den Beiträgen Verfassungsrechtler: Österreich schlecht für Notfälle gerüstet oder Weltrisikogesellschaft – Auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Sicherheit, wie etwa:

“Es sind sehr wohl Zuständigkeiten auszumachen, aber diese sind auf mehrere gesellschaftliche Teilsysteme verteilt. (…) Es handelt sich also um ein weitverzweigtes Labyrinth, dessen Konstruktionsplan nicht Unzuständigkeit oder Verantwortungslosigkeit ist, vielmehr die Gleichzeitigkeit von Zuständigkeit und Unzurechenbarkeit, genauer: Zuständigkeit als Unzurechenbarkeit oder: organisierte Unverantwortlichkeit.” Weltrisikogesellschaft, S. 345.

Zum anderen wurden die Notwendigkeit einer nationalen Risikokommunikation und Maßnahmen zur Erhöhung der gesamtgesellschaftlichen Selbsthilfefähigkeit (Resilienz) deutlich unterstrichen (siehe auch Offener Brief an die Sicherheitssprecher der österreichischen Parteien). Nur wenn möglichst viele Menschen über die Gefahr eines Blackouts und dem damit eng verbunden Ausfall der Wasserver- und Abwasserentsorgung Bescheid wissen, können sie sich auch entsprechend damit  auseinandersetzen und vorbereiten. Das ist die Voraussetzung, um die erwartbaren Schäden – die weit über das Finanzielle hinausgehen – zu reduzieren. Die Ignoranz ist unverantwortlich und fahrlässig.

Die (Trink-)Wasserver- und Abwasserentsorgung ist weitgehend dezentral organisiert und liegt in der Verantwortung der Kommunen. Wie sich im Rahmen der Arbeit gezeigt hat, sind die Verantwortlichkeiten hinsichtlich einer Krisenvorsorge nicht immer wirklich bewusst bzw. bekannt. Dies ist insofern überraschend, da die Kommunen für mögliche Schäden und Kosten aufzukommen haben und präventive Vorsorgemaßnahmen wesentlich günstiger als eine mögliche Schadensbehebung ist. Daher ist der Workshop „Blackout: eine kommunale Herausforderung“ am 2. September ein kleiner aber wichtiger zivilgesellschaftlicher Beitrag, um die Sensibiltät bei diesen Stakeholdern zu erhöhen.

Ulrich Beck meint in Weltrisikogesellschaft zu Aussagen wie:

“Wir müssen eigentlich feststellen wir haben keine Erfahrung aus der Vergangenheit, weil nichts passiert ist. Also kann sie nicht so groß sein, die Gefahr, also rein rational betrachtet. Nur wenn halt was passiert, dann ist es halt ein riesen Problem, net so wie bei einer Lawine.” (Interview Ministry of the Interior, 2015).

“Die nicht-erkennbaren Risiken der Risikomodelle verstecken sich unter der Oberfläche der Kontrollierbarkeit. Da moderne Formen des Risikomanagements meistens mathematische Präzisionsverfahren maximieren, unterschätzen sie systematisch das Eintreten unerwarteter und unwahrscheinlicher, aber deswegen keineswegs unmöglicher Ereignisse, und zwar sowohl was deren Häufigkeit als auch das Ausmaß der Schäden betrifft. An dieser scheinbar minimalen Differenz zwischen „unwahrscheinlich“ und „unmöglich“ trennen sich die Welten.” S. 235.

Wenn selbige Stelle feststellt, dass Hitzewellen das wahrscheinlichste und weitreichenste Risiko für Österreich darstellen, dann ist das in Teilen durchaus richtig (siehe etwa Hitzewellen haben erhebliche Auswirkungen). Während aber die Gesellschaft bei einer Hitzewelle im gesamten handlungsfähig bleibt und nur einzelne Personengruppen besonders gefährdet sind, führt ein Blackout – insbesondere mit einem teilweisen Zusammenbruch der Wasserversorgung (siehe auch RNÖ: Connecting the dots) – innerhalb weniger Tage zu einem gesellschaftlichen Kollaps (siehe hierzu Studie des deutschen Bundestages: Gefährdung und Verletzbarkeit moderner Gesellschaften durch Stromausfall).

Und hier ist auch immer wieder zu betonen, sollte es – was durchaus plausibel ist – in Österreich gelingen, die Stromversorgung binnen eines Tages  wieder weitgehend herzustellen, besteht dennoch eine hohe Wahrscheinlichkeit, dass dies nicht in ganz Europa und insbesondere nicht in Deutschland gelingen könnte. Was zu weitreichenden wirtschaftlichen und gesellschaftlichen Auswirkungen, bis hin zu massiven Versorgungsengpässen, führen kann.

Die Autorin fordert daher eine öffentliche Auseinandersetzung, Bewusstseinschaffung und Vorbereitung ein. Nichtzuletzt auch deshalb, weil die Interviewpartner angegeben haben, dass ein solcher Prozess im eigenen Bereich erst begonnen habe, nachdem es dazu entsprechende Informationen über die aktuellen Herausforderungen im europäischen Stromversorgungssystem gab. ‘It is important to expect the worst as long as it is still reasonable to do so.’ – was wohl ausreichend belegt ist. Sie betont dabei auch, dass es nicht ausreicht, wenn sich nur einzelne Stakeholder (etwa Infrastrukturbetreiber oder Einsatzorganisationen) damit auseinandersetzen, sondern das auch eine aktive Einbindung der Bevölkerung und Mobilisierung der Eigenvorsorge unverzichtbar sind.

Hierzu noch einige ausgewählte Kernaussagen:

  • Awareness of the risk of an energy blackout and its effects on the water sector are inadequate.
  • An underling hazard to the water sector is a lack of knowledge on stakeholder responsibilities.
  • The most important conclusion is those risks always exist. There can never be a “zero-risk”
  • Municipalities have the responsibility to prevent disaster, but also to coordinate the local response.
  • In Austria, the municipalities have to carry the financial costs for damages critical infrastructure and for prevention measures (Interview MOTI, 2015).
  • The main purpose is to constrain the risk rather than to eliminate it and to raise awareness rather than to deny it.
  • The overall aim is to raise awareness, attract attention and assume responsibility for risks associated with a water outage caused by a blackout that cause severe disruption of daily life.
  • Even if the probability of a disaster may be very low, the gain from prevention from a human perspective is priceless.
  • Early planning and preparation including all possible stakeholders are necessary due to the variety of causes for a blackout and water outage and the diversity of sectors within the critical infrastructure that are hit.
  • Domino effects are the most threatening for today’s society and yet create a vulnerability paradox contradicting the perception of risk and reality.
  • One point that applies to all disasters is the importance of being aware and communicating before a disaster occurs, and to prepare actively applying technological, societal and managerial approaches. Awareness is the first step, but it is not enough since blackouts and water outages pose nowadays major risks to industrialized countries.
  • Investment in mitigation measures is considered effective for reducing and preventing high costs and economic losses. Even if a blackout may not be considered cost intensive, indirect costs such as human suffering need to be included in calculations. Though they are difficult to quantify, indirect costs tend to be five times higher than direct costs making any mitigation measure financially profitable even if the target group may never be hit (Levy & Bissell, 2013).
  • Investment in mitigation measures is considered effective for reducing and preventing high costs and economic losses. Indirect costs tend to be five times higher than direct costs making any mitigation measure financially profitable even if the target group may never be hit.
  • In general, crisis management does not begin with the crisis itself, but with awareness of vulnerabilities and an assessment of potential disasters that may occur (Prisching, 2008).
  • A gravitational water flow can avoid interdependency, which is regionally limited and should not be generalized.
  • Missing communication means emphasize the need for in advance preparation and exchange between all stakeholders.
  • For example, without informing and sharing information on risks with the population, they will not be prepared for possible consequences to make appropriate decisions.
  • This seems unlikely since the organizations work in trust and believe that one or the other is prepared in case a water outage occurs.
  • Cooperation between different stakeholders is essential for any analysis and decision.
  • It is known that the feeling of not receiving any information and not knowing how long the water outage will last are especially of concern for people.
  • Communication and collaboration is therefore essential to prevent criticism and to assure loyalty and calmness within the population and the teams.
  • Organizations and rescue teams can lower the negative effects as long as preventive communication and planning has taken place before the occurrence of the blackout.
  • This demonstrates that even if the supply of water is not a problem, the disposal will be.
  • The high-level water storage tank is usually only filled with more or less sixty percent of the possible capacity, which would last for around two days. In winter the tank is filled with slightly more water than in summer since not that much water is used. In the summer, however, water use is much higher due to increased watering of the garden and hence almost no water is stored in the tank, but just runs through.
  • Some mitigation measures may not seem cost-effective for industries or businesses, while experience though shows that a lack of mitigation measures can have severe consequences for the public.
  • In the end mitigation mechanisms should exist for at least a week.
  • The overall aim is to raise awareness, attract attention and assume responsibility for risks associated with a water outage caused by a blackout that cause severe disruption of daily life.

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