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OpinionsHow resilient is our digital world is the big question

How resilient is our digital world is the big question


Abhilash Pandi

The COVID-19 pandemic shows that digital connectivity is critical to societal resilience and business continuity in the times of crisis

Technology is now all around us. The digital transformation we have seen over the last few years has increased the emphasis on always being online. For instance, in 2015, 7.5 per cent of the Indian population was connected to the internet but by 2019, this percentage increased to 34 per cent, according to the Bank data. Indian mobile users consume 8.3 gigabytes of data each month on an average and India is digitising faster than any other country.

  Digital transformation has opened the doors to alleviating poverty, creating  opportunities and monitoring  and improving  emergency response. But it has also added a new layer of vulnerability. A single disaster caused by natural hazards could lead to serious damage to critical information systems and trigger the failure of entire networks. Not only our banks, airports and transport infrastructure are networked but increasingly energy, education, security, and protective assets are intertwined through the cyber domain, too. The remotely-managed floodgates, early warning systems, waste management, social sites for crowdsourcing, safety information and space technology for conducting damage assessment, among others, are now part of a connected system.

The COVID-19 pandemic shows that digital connectivity is critical to societal resilience and business continuity in times of crisis. For digital infrastructure providers in developed and emerging markets, higher demand for connectivity may be counterbalanced by frequent negative shocks. For instance, take hurricane Harvey. Back in 2017 when the storm made landfall in Texas and caused more than a 100 deaths and $125 billion in damages, hospitals were quickly overwhelmed. They lacked the essential resources to treat patients and many had to evacuate due to flooding. While relocating patients, the staff had to leave the records behind, with limited ways to access them from afar. The shift to different hospitals severely reduced operational capacity as doctors scrambled to piece together critical data. The efficiency and effectiveness of patient care undoubtedly took a hit as a result. The 2019 cyclone Fani that struck the coastal state of Odisha, ripped apart the telecom infrastructure, with direct losses amounting to more than $70 million. In the aftermath of the 2011 Queensland floods, over 50 per cent of the organisations reported that they had experienced disruption in their business operations to different degrees as server rooms were affected by inundation.

Cyber security threats are another major risk, which have already taken a toll on a few notable occasions. The 2015 cyberattack in Ukraine, which affected the electricity supply, and the 2017 Wannacry and NotPetyaransomware, which heavily disrupted critical infrastructure services across Europe, are just a few instances.

The correlation of such complex events with the risk of malicious hazards, such as cyberattacks, may exacerbate the most vital of societal functions including the authorities' capacity to mitigate the impact of these cascading events. In effect, cascading events make it difficult to estimate the extent of any single induced disruption, as many intervening variables may affect the outcome.

Such risks are compounded by the fact that many of the small and medium-sized companies on which much of the relies are likely to come with their own cyber security-related vulnerabilities. Multiple studies indicate that Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) are identified as a clear target of cyberattacks and they are less able to withstand them. A 2019 study by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) identified that 43 per cent of SMEs are the target of cyberattacks. The current ambition to digitise as soon as possible as part of the SME recovery and response to COVID-19 has increased the occurrence of cyberattacks. A 2020 McKinsey  study estimates that spear-phishing attacks have increased seven-fold since the beginning of the pandemic.

To increase the resilience of digital infrastructure investments, it is necessary to monitor and measure their vulnerability, sensitivity, interdependency and exposure to risk. This shift requires investors, operators and decision-makers to make sure that disaster and climate risks are considered in the location, design, construction and operation of planned infrastructure investments.

For digital infrastructure to be classified as “sustainable,” regulators need to include natural hazards as a key criterion as well as have a clear definition of resilience. For that, there is a need to explicitly require institutional investors and asset managers, as well as infrastructure developers, to integrate disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and resilience into their decisions.

With trillions of dollars ready to be injected into the recovery from COVID-19, it is now the right time for the Government and the private sector to consider how best these investments can be resilient, green and equitable. In our rush to recover from COVID-19, we must not miss a golden opportunity to reduce the existing levels of risk and to avoid creating new ones. Sustainability and resilience are two sides of the same coin. Unsustainable infrastructure undermines the resilience of those who are dependent on its smooth functioning. It is time  we address these critical issues and ask ourselves: Are we investing in resilience or obsolescence?

The writer is head, Infrastructure Resilience, & deputy for Intergovernmental and Partnerships Branch, UNDRR. The views expressed are personal. 

The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.


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