In a crisis, to Manage or not to Manage, that is the question

The failure of water services is dramatic, affects thousands of people and businesses, has financial implications and is likely to hit the local, if not the national, headlines. As the saying goes, reputations take a lifetime to build and are lost in a minute. Having confidence in the capacity of your utility – which means you, your colleagues, the existing infrastructure and your procedures – to develop efficient crisis management is of critical importance.

Preparing ourselves for situations that are filled with potential risk, whether physical, financial or ethical, may appear to many people as too pessimistic: a kind of “betting on the worst case scenario”. Many may be tempted to argue that there is enough to deal with without worrying about situations that may never occur, or are so fanciful as to be inconceivable.

Experiences and lessons learned from water utilities around the globe that have faced a severe crisis, are always extremely valuable. They force us to ask ourselves some far reaching and often uncomfortable questions.

What if all this had happened to us? Does my utility run a similar risk? How would I react if confronted with such a situation? What solutions exist to provide support for decision-making in such circumstances? How would we communicate to our customers? Would my staff and colleagues know what to do? More personally, how would my performance be rated after the crisis, and can I be held responsible for my actions?

If you ask yourself such questions, if you want to learn other experiences, if you’re concerned with security and safety issues, if the word “resilience” has meaning for you, if you have sweated during uncomfortable times and have experienced the feeling of “loss of control”, then you’re ready to open the door to crisis management.


Being dynamic in crisis situations is critical

The reality is that “crisis management” isn’t as terrifying as most people assume. With modest investments, it’s possible to significantly improve the capacity of water utilities to face and overcome crisis situations.

In my experience, built on discussions and exchanges with utilities across the five continents, the less prepared utilities mostly rely on static security coming from infrastructure reliability. This may give a sense of stability, but crisis situations require dynamic security, based on the human capacity to respond swiftly and accurately, making the correct assessment of the situation and subsequent reaction.

When a crisis situation occurs, those water utilities that are unprepared run many risks, which threaten both operations and reputations. A lack of planning often means late detection, or a focus on some incidents while others go ignored. Even when problems are identified, the severity of the situation is often underestimated, action is delayed and poor decision-making is compounded by bad communication.



What then are the steps needed to demonstrate the resiliency of your water utility?

  • Preparing realistic risk assessments
  • Developing plans and procedures for crisis management and making them part of your corporate culture
  • Practicing security exercises and drills to test and then improve the detection, the reaction, and the mitigation of abnormal situations
  • Learning from others’ experiences.

Preparation for crisis management can also provide several positive secondary effects for water utilities. These include the clarification of the roles of individuals and teams within the utility’s charter; the development of a corporate culture around resiliency; the understanding of vulnerabilities; and learning to work under stress with colleagues.

At the same time, it requires the implementation of top-down and a bottom-up approaches to get the full benefit of preparedness for crisis management; and the support of the top management is fundamental if one wants to really be prepared for the next crisis situation.

Preparedness in many crises makes the difference between a complete disaster and a more controlled situation. This brings reduced consequences and a shortened duration to the disruption to water services. It won’t make the headlines but, when it comes to crisis management, that’s a good outcome.



Experts from the IWA Specialist Group on Water Security and Safety Management of the IWA coming from France, the USA and Israel, will share their know-how and expertise on on Crisis Management (including ISO standards and definitions) during a training session organised as part of the World Water Congress & Exhibition:

Crisis Management at Water Utilities

Date: 09 October 2016, 10.30 – 15.30
Venue: Room 5, Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre

Chair: Bruno Nguyen, UNESCO International Hydrological Program, Paris – France

Contributor: Ilan Juran

How can water utilities get operational ready for crisis situation throug preparedness, Decision Support Tools, and Smart Water Systems?

In a context of global change, population growth, and increase of environmental risks, water utilities need to share experience and best practices in order to be best prepared against upcoming crisis situations, and to develop efficient resiliency for water services. Trainees will understand through practical cases and simulated exercise how they can be prepared and respond to extreme events, and how they can make use of the latest development in Smart Water Systems. Beyond the concepts and recommendations, special attention will also be given on how to improve mitigation and response by regularly practicing drills, and on the need for appropriate communication under stressed situations.

Bruno Nguyen

Specialist Group Representative - Senior International Water Specialist, France
Bruno has built strong and varied expertise in the field of water in the last 28 years, developed high-level technical skills and expertise in operational management of a water utility, in security and safety issues, and in international cooperation.... Read full biography