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Friday 10 Jan 2020Building resilience in the UK water sector: a systems based approach to emergency management

Dr Sarah Bunney - University of the West of England

Harrison 170 14:35-15:25


The ability to achieve resilience to extreme events requires a shift away from the traditional risk management approach and a progression towards understanding resilience as a dynamic process operating within a complex socio-ecological-technical emergency management system. Taking a systems based approach this research applied quantitative and qualitative methods to explore how resilience to water supply failure is achieved within the UK emergency management system. This was supported through the application of the Safe and SuRe intervention framework. Semi-structured interviews with emergency management professionals revealed that the Civil Contingencies Act, 2004 is not aligned with current operational practices to enable effective collaboration between Category 1 and Category 2 responders. This is further constrained by a lack of government funding and a lack of understanding with regard to organisational culture and how this influences the operational delivery of multi-agency emergency response. The attitudes and perceptions of individuals to water supply failure was examined through individual householder questionnaires and the analysis of Facebook comments during the ‘Beast from the East’. Individuals expressed a high level of confidence in the ability of Water Service Provider’s to provide a reliable, continuous and safe supply of water. While the majority of individuals do not prepare for a failure of the water supply they actively respond during an incident to achieve resilience by purchasing water from the supermarkets, staying with relatives or attending water distribution stations. However, the ability to achieve resilience requires the provision of accurate, timely and consistent information from the Water Service Providers. Resilience to emergencies can also be strengthened at the local level through the development of collaborative working partnerships. The integration of community groups within the emergency management system enables resilience through the sharing and exchange of information to understand capabilities available for effective emergency response.

This research demonstrates how the application of a systems based approach enables a greater understanding of the complex interdependencies between different parts of the emergency management system. These were explored and developed into recommendations identifying where resilient based strategies and interventions are required at the government, inter-organisational and community level.


Sarah recently completed a PhD within the Centre for Water Systems Research under the supervision of Professor David Butler and Associate Professor Sarah Ward. With a research focus on emergency management, Sarah explored the impact of system failure within the UK water sector to understand how improved resilience to extreme events can be achieved through effective emergency planning.

Prior to starting a PhD, Sarah worked for the Environment Agency in Flood Risk Management. As a senior Flood warning Duty Officer, Sarah managed the Area Incident Room during flood events and monitored both fluvial levels and the tides along the Somerset Coast to determine the correct threshold levels in the dissemination of flood warnings. Sarah was also the technical lead in the development of multi-agency scenario planning and worked in partnership with Local Authority Emergency Managers to design and implement multi-agency flood exercises. As Chairman of the Regional Public Awareness Group, she was responsible for the development and implementation of a five year strategy to raise awareness of emergency preparedness in local communities at risk of flooding. This involved working in partnership with Local Authorities and Community Groups and led to the successful development of Flood Warden Schemes within high risk locations. This approach was presented as an example of ‘good practice’ at the National Flood Forum Conference in 2003 and Sarah is very proud that these Flood Warden Schemes are still in operation today.

Sarah's prime research interest is exploring and understanding relationships within complex socio-ecological-technical systems to develop resilience based strategies for extreme events. She is also interested in hazard and threat perception and how this influences the ability to achieve resilience within communities.

Sarah recently joined the DRY (Drought Research and You) Project at UWE. Part of her role is to continue the development of a web-based utility combining digital story telling with catchment-based drought research. She is also a social researcher on the ENDOWS project conducting semi-structured interviews to understand perceptions of water scarcity.

Sarah has a bachelor's degree in Geology at the University of Manchester and a master's degree in Volcanology at the University of Bristol. During her MSc, Sarah developed a series of elastic, visco-elastic and thermo-mechanical models using the structural mechanics and heat flow modules of COMSOL multi-physics to determine the causative mechanisms of unrest at Campi-Flegrei caldera, Italy. She is also a Fellow of the Geological Society.

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