Sustainable airports


Sustainable airports

Tackling the risk of flooding in the face of climate change

It’s widely accepted that extreme weather events are happening more frequently across the globe. At the same time, sea levels are steadily rising. These phenomena are driving airports worldwide to defend against major threats to their operations – freak weather events that can cause anything from floods to extreme droughts.

To date, the most dramatic and devastating flooding events have affected airports in Asia in particular. In 2011, Don Muang Airport in Bangkok was so severely flooded that it took a year to reopen. Just this year, airports in Japan and Kerala were forced to close because of water surges and extreme rainfall.

Social and economic damage

The closure of any airport clearly has immediate impact. In addition to the commercial implications for the airport operator, a closure has an instant effect on economics in that region.

The social implications are significant too. Every individual that is unable to land or depart from that airport has to manage some personal impact – whether it relates to work, family or even medical emergencies.

Cause versus effect

Clearly every airport is seeking to minimise its exposure to the effects of climate change. As a long-term strategy, airports can focus on addressing the causes of climate change: by cutting carbon emissions and behaving more sustainably.

However, in Asia, the scale and frequency of extreme weather events is driving airports to also take urgent adaptation actions. Here, the focus is less on tackling the root cause and more on rapidly implementing flood prevention measures.

Prevention expertise

Many airports are seeking the support of NACO to achieve this. We take a simple yet highly effective approach. Initially studying the individual risks of climate change on an airport’s operations and assets, we then recommend adaptation actions. We include appropriate phasing to create a roadmap of activity to deliver the best possible resilience in a realistic timeframe.

An important part of this is examining the cost of the measures against the benefits they deliver. We also recommend how best to implement the actions required without having a detrimental effect on the airport’s performance: clearly the impact on continued operations should be minimal while the preventative measures are implemented.

Clients value our advice; partly because of our origins in the Netherlands, where flood prevention has become a way of life for centuries. But we also have extensive experience with airport projects around the globe and have completed the first comprehensive climate change resilience study for one of the landmark airports in Asia-Pacific – Changi International Airport, Singapore.

Successful defence

At Changi International Airport, we verified whether its large-scale water defences were adequate in view of expected climate-change-induced weather events in combination with rising sea-levels. We also introduced buffering solutions that would take the edge off peak utility demand during a particular weather event.

There’s no doubt that a sound approach to flood defences is effective. Take Don Muang Airport as another example. When this secondary airport for Bangkok was devastated by floodwater and much of the city was submerged, the primary Suvarnabhumi International Airport continued its operations unaffected, thanks to NACO’s polder design which was based on robust water management systems, mitigating against future threat.

Not just flooding

While flood defence is the top priority in the airport sector today, it’s not the only extreme weather event that we are witnessing. Based on recent events, there is a good reason to broaden the focus of sustainability measures to cover water management more widely.

Clearly storm surges can create major issues for any airport: take the latest storm, Hurricane Florence, off the south east coast of the US and Typhoon Mangkhut, over the South China Sea as just a couple of examples where hundreds of flights were cancelled.

On the flip side, in Athens this summer a prolonged heatwave put its primary airport at risk of running out of water which it needed to support many core airport functions such as aircraft- and cooling system-supply, as it was witnessing a peak in energy demand for cooling both terminal buildings and aircraft. With so many processes dependent on a reliable water supply and energy, this too could become a significant threat to airports in the future.

The good news is that accurate risk assessment and modelling can identify the most effective ways to prevent prolonged airport shut-downs. The right approach will protect both business and society for generations to come.


Joeri Aulman is speaking at ACI Asia-Pacific Small and Emerging Airports 2018 on October 11 in Langkawi.

Vivekanandhan Sindhamani is speaking in a panel at the ATAG Global Sustainable Aviation Summit in Geneva on October 3.