Townsville floods demonstrate need for better disaster planning - Australia needs to invest today for a safer tomorrow

11 February 2019

Climate change threatens disasters that are larger and more complex than ever before. Australia needs to be better prepared to tackle these, Anthony Bergin writes.
According to reinsurance company Swiss Re’s preliminary estimates, total global losses for natural and man-made disasters last year amounted to approximately US $155 billion and caused about 11,000 deaths.
The report says the losses from these events in 2018 highlight the increasing vulnerability of concentration of humans and property values on coastlines and in the urban-wildlife interface.
Climate change has a role in the increasing impact and severity of disasters. Hotter temperatures can exacerbate prolonged droughts which increase the risk of wildfires, strengthen cyclones, and increase extreme rainfall events. The past four years were the hottest since global temperature records began according to the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation, an analysis it says is a “clear sign of continuing long-term climate change”.
There’s an increased risk that disasters will become larger, more complex, and occur simultaneously in regions that haven’t experienced these events previously or at the same frequency or intensity.
As Tony Press recently argued on The Strategist, this means that Australia needs to get its act together by clearly articulating “national climate research objectives and align(ing) them with formal arrangements and collaborations that bring together our key climate institutions and researchers.”
So what can Australia do to beef up its tools to cope with the increasing likelihood of natural disasters while avoiding the associated risk of cascading failures in vulnerable communities?
First, while the country has a plethora of disaster management plans, we need to examine to what extent these set out largely aspirational goals. Given the extreme threats posed by climate change, incremental improvements to our disaster management arrangements won’t cut it anymore.
The areas where significant improvements are required include managing disasters larger than planned for, improving community education about hazards and self-protection, and developing real-time and wide-area situational awareness. We’re also going to need to do more to incorporate incentives into the insurance market to encourage owners to reduce the potential for loss.
Second, in the context of more extreme climate-induced weather events, there’s a strong case for the Commonwealth to take a greater leadership role in active emergency management, in the same way it has done with counter-terrorism.
Emergency management is primarily a matter for the states and territories, but the Australian government’s role in crisis coordination and disaster response is undertaken by Emergency Management Australia (EMA).
In order to ensure that EMA can meet the expanded needs of government, the organisation needs more than simply the current case-by-case acceptance of its role by other federal and state agencies.
EMA requires a Cabinet mandate to lead the Australian government’s response to a crisis, to give it the power to ensure that all federal agencies are properly monitoring, testing, and exercising their emergency response plans as part of the Australian government’s broader crisis response obligation, and to ensure that duplication of effort is minimised across the national government.
Third, we should be accelerating catastrophic disaster preparation: climate change has the potential to increase the likelihood of disasters that create devastating economic, social, and environmental consequences which exceed the capability of state disaster management arrangements.
As the former Director-General of EMA, Mark Crosweller warned nearly three years ago we need to start to prepare for the ‘Big One’ and be able to “imagine before and act when the time comes”.    
Where the disaster capabilities of a city and region are completely destroyed, it can overwhelm any level of disaster response capability. We should be doing more to determine realistic catastrophic scenarios and developing models which realistically simulate their physical, societal, and economic impacts.
Fourth, we should be doing more to embed aspects of disaster resilience into decisions around significant national infrastructure and the built environment. Reliable and robust critical infrastructure – electricity, water, and telecommunication services, for example – is fundamental to our economy and quality of life.
Fifth, disaster management agencies will need to consider climate change as a major factor requiring the inclusion of disaster risk reduction principles into the work of their own agencies. They should determine how climate change will affect the supply and continuity of their services. Serious floods have the potential to result in a loss of emergency services resources and capability, including command and control centres.
Finally, state and local governments need a renewed focus on climate change impacts on land use decisions. Many hazard-prone areas should never have been approved for development.
The number of people potentially exposed to the hazards caused by climate change is increasing. ‘Sea-changers’ and ‘tree-changers’ are moving to coastal and bushfire areas, even though these areas are projected to have an increased risk of coastal inundation and bushfires. With our population ageing, there’ll be increasing numbers of Australians who will be dependent on assistance to prepare, prevent, respond, and recover from disasters.
Addressing the problems of land use planning requires practical guidance for state and local governments on factoring climate change into land use decisions and sustained essential services in hazard-prone areas.
A key area of support required is high-resolution hazard mapping upon which individual and regional planning decisions are based. In north Queensland, for example, Townsville’s official flood maps didn’t include projections of the possible extent of inundation across riverside suburbs where the local council approved ground-level homes and businesses in recent years.
The maps, used to approve new developments, projected that several low-lying suburbs would escape a one-in-100-year flood largely unscathed. The current Townsville floods appear to be at a level of intensity that’s escaped poorly understood expressions of probability and assumptions about the nature of damage that comes from significant and sustained rainfall and flooding.
Australians’ vulnerability to natural disasters is increasing. We need to invest today for a safer tomorrow by making sure our essential services and related infrastructure are resilient and remain functional even when impacted by the consequences of these events.
We also need to ensure that we can reduce vulnerability of communities and infrastructure to the impacts of disasters. Investing in mitigation efforts reduces vulnerability and enhances resilience. A recent study found that every dollar invested in mitigation saves six dollars later in recovery costs.
It’s expected that these messages will be underlined in an Australian national disaster mitigation framework currently being prepared by the National Resilience Taskforce. Established by the Australian government last April, the Task Force’s findings are likely to be released later this year.
And with extreme weather events increasing, they are messages that can’t be heard loud or soon enough.
This article originally appeared on Policy Forum.