Safeguarding systems: The Serbian case

by Kanmani Venkateswaran

Photo Credit: Danijela Vasic/Wikicommons

Are discussions of resilience really relevant – or is this just a passing fad? The case of floods in Serbia, outlined below, illustrates just how important these discussions can be.

Between May 14 and 18, 2014, Southeastern Europe received heavy rains, causing torrential floods and landslides. Serbia was the hardest hit country. Although official flood damage reports have not yet been published, it is estimated that at least 51 people have died18,000 houses and 3,700 km of roads damaged2,260 public, industrial, and infrastructural facilities flooded, and thousands of people displaced. These damages could cost Serbia 1.5 to 2 billion euros.

The next step is recovery. Economists, however, have predicted that Serbia will fall into recession as a result of the floods. Can Serbia recover in such a situation?

This issue brings to light the importance of resilience and buffering in economic systems so that they do not collapse due to shocks. In Serbia economic systems were not buffered. More specifically, the following industries that Serbia is economically dependent upon were not able to cope with the floods:

  • Agriculture: The agriculture sector in Serbia accounts for 10% of its GDP. The floods destroyed large tracts of arable land. This has caused great livelihood insecurity and will significantly limit agricultural production in the years to come.
  • Transportation: The floods destroyed roads and railways. This will hinder the movement of people and goods and in turn negatively impact businesses.
  • Energy: The majority of Serbia’s energy comes from coal. Floodwaters damaged coal mines, particularly the Kolubara mining complex, which provides Serbia with enough coal to meet 50% of its energy needs. Major power plants were also flooded and had to be shut down.

Recent work on urban climate resilience worldwide shows that infrastructure and ecosystems need to be flexible and diverse, redundant and modular, and able to fail safely to be resilient. These characteristics can also help buffer economic systems in the face of shocks. Here, I use Serbia’s energy sector to demonstrate these characteristics of resilience (or lack thereof).

System flexibility and diversity are defined as: “The ability to perform essential tasks under a wide range of conditions, and to convert assets or modify structures to introduce new ways of achieving them”. Resilience is enhanced when systems are flexible, have substantial redundancy and are based on modular components. Approximately 57.5% of Serbia’s energy comes from fossil fuels (primarily coal), 39% from hydropower, and a mere 3.5% from other renewables. Serbia’s high dependence on coal means that its energy system is not very diverse. Alternative energy sources are not able to keep up with existing energy demands.

Redundancy and modularity have to do with implementing “contingency situations to accommodate increasing or extreme surge pressures or demand; multiple pathways and a variety of options for service delivery; or interacting components composed of similar parts that can replace each other if one, or even many, fail”. Serbia’s energy sector is not redundant or modular. For one, Serbia only has two major power plants, Nikola Tesla and Kostulac, and both are located in the flood zone. Second, the Nikola Tesla coal-fired power plant is Serbia’s largest power plant complex and provides electricity for half of Serbia. This plant faced flood damage and had to be partially shut down. Serbia needs to develop a wider system of smaller power plants that are spread throughout the country. This way, if one power plant is damaged in the event of a flood, other existing plants can take on its load.

Safe failure is the ability of a system “to absorb sudden shocks (including those that exceed design thresholds) or the cumulative effects of slow-onset stress in ways that avoid catastrophic failure”. It also refers to the ability of interdependent systems to function despite failures in particular system components. The power plants and the coal mines, components of the energy system, did not fail safely. Their failures cascaded through the energy system and have caused power outages across Serbia, which have in turn negatively impacted other industries.

Dependence on coal, the lack of small and distributed power plants, and the overall failure of existing coal mines and power plants have put Serbia at great economic risk. The resulting decline in industrial productivity, spike in electricity prices, and potential economic recession will make it difficult for Serbia to recover from these catastrophic floods.

Diversity and flexibility, redundancy and modularity, and safe failure need to be built into systems so they can recover quickly from shocks and not create cascading effects on other systems when they do fail. Recognition of this is emerging in many areas. In Boulder, Colorado, for example, one of the core reasons the city is considering developing its own municipal utility is the opportunity to develop highly modular and redundant renewable power sources which would contribute both to resilience of the system while also reducing green house gas emissions. In India, similar ideas are beginning to influence debates over the design of sanitation systems where, rather than a municipal utility managing waste through an integrated piped sewer system, approaches based on modular composting toilets or distributed small scale treatment systems are being considered.

Countries should use the Serbia floods as a learning opportunity and build better, more resilient systems, which will protect their economies in the face of climate shocks.

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