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Mar 15 2024

Water in the Time of COVID: A Sociotechnical Approach to Explore Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Urban Water Infrastructure

Distinguished Seminar

March 15, 2024

11:00 AM - 12:00 PM America/Chicago


1047 ERF


842 W. Taylor St., Chicago, IL 60607

Presenter: Emily Berglund, PhD, North Carolina State University
Location: 1047 ERF

Abstract: Urban water supply is a complex sociotechnical system, in which the interactions of social, technological, and natural mechanisms lead to the emergence of demand satisfaction, water quality, water affordability, environmental sustainability, and public health outcomes. The feedback between human behaviors and water infrastructure emerged in new ways during the COVID-19 pandemic, when social distancing caused massive changes in work and recreation. This research takes a sociotechnical approach to understand how societal shifts that occurred during the pandemic caused changes in the operations of the water industry, water demands, the performance of water infrastructure, and the quality of service delivered to consumers. A sociotechnical approach integrates actor and system perspectives, in which the system perspective focuses on infrastructure operations and water flows, and the actor perspective depicts the adaptive actions of a community of users and water utility manager. Interviews, analysis of water demand data, surveys, and simulation are integrated in this research to understand changes across actors and water systems during the pandemic. First, interviews were conducted at 27 water utilities between June and October 2020 to explore new protocols that were needed to ensure that employees could work safely, and that water service would not be interrupted. Utilities reported changes in demand volumes and patterns, impacts on finances, and new system vulnerabilities. Second, smart water meter data were analyzed to explore the extent of changes in water demands that occurred as individuals and households adopted social distancing practices. An Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) dataset for a cooperating utility in California revealed changes in the timing and spatial distribution of water demands corresponding with lockdown measures and stay-at-home directives. Finally, insight about changes in water demands was used to develop an agent-based modeling framework and explore the effects of social distancing decisions on water flows and water quality. A hydraulic model, COVID-19 transmission model, and decision-making models were coupled within an agent-based modeling framework. Decision-making models were developed by training Bayesian Belief Network models to predict social distancing behaviors, based on the results of a survey of risk perceptions that was distributed across 11 countries during March and April 2020. The agent-based modeling framework was applied for a virtual city, and results demonstrate an increase in average water age and changes to the expected flow directions in pipes under scenarios of increasing social distancing. Nodes near industrial areas experienced higher degradation of water quality, indicating impacts on equitable access to safe drinking water. This research demonstrates a comprehensive sociotechnical approach to explore water infrastructure and community outcomes during pandemics. The findings and methods developed through this research can be used to manage water infrastructure during hazards and periods of unexpected demand changes.

Bio: Dr. Emily Zechman Berglund is a professor and associate head for faculty development in the North Carolina State University Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering. She earned her PhD at NC State in 2005, and she was an assistant professor at Texas A&M University for four years before returning to NC State. Berglund studies sociotechnical systems, with a focus on feedback mechanisms and adaptations among human behaviors and decision-making, infrastructure, and environmental systems as they affect water resources and water infrastructure. Her research focuses on developing agent-based modeling frameworks, optimization methods, and simulation models to explore the interplay within sociotechnical systems. Her methods are applied to manage the sustainability, security, and resilience of complex infrastructure systems and smart cities. She teaches courses in water resources engineering, systems analysis, and complex adaptive systems. Berglund received NC State’s Outstanding Graduate Faculty Mentor Award in 2018. Along with co-authors, she received the 2020 Best Seminal Paper Award, multiple Editor’s Choice Awards, and Best Research-Oriented Paper Awards in 2010 and 2011 for publications in the American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management. Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Security Agency (NSA), and state water and transportation research institutes.


Ahmed Abokifa

Date posted

Feb 21, 2024

Date updated

Feb 21, 2024