Building back better
11 Jan 2016|


Australian infrastructure, along with the threat of natural or manmade disasters, is particularly complex, making infrastructure failures inevitable.

That’s why I read with interest Paul Barnes’ post on improving the disaster resilience of critical infrastructure in northern Australia and the supply chains they depend upon.

We should be trying to counteract the rising costs of responding to disasters. The economic costs of rebuilding communities is shared by all Australians when Commonwealth funds are dispersed for recovery. The Productivity Commission established that the costs to the Commonwealth of recovery funds for disaster events since 2009 amounted to approximately $12 billion.

In spite of this dramatic spending, it’s the general practice in Australia not to improve our infrastructure, rather rebuild damaged and destroyed roads, buildings, and utilities to their original state.

Betterment—that is, rebuilding an asset to a more disaster-resilient standard—is rarely undertaken because it’s subject to ‘a lower reimbursement rate, a higher administrative burden and lack of a budget allocation by the Australian government (which means that offsetting savings must be made elsewhere to fund betterment)’.

The Productivity Commission has found that 97% of disaster funding is spent after a disaster and only 3% goes toward mitigation and preparedness. That equation needs to be rebalanced.

Five years ago, the Institution of Engineers released its Infrastructure Report Card report, which found that our infrastructure, (especially road and rail), is plagued by aging assets and inadequate capacity.

The Infrastructure Report Card found that little or no progress had been made since Engineers Australia conducted a similar audit in 2005.

In the earlier report, Australia’s overall result was a C+ and five years later, still a C+. The backlog of maintenance, repair and much-needed upgrades has only continued to grow since, leaving us with aging infrastructure that’s increasingly fragile.

Making infrastructure more resistant to disaster impacts is a choice which can involve making roads higher, bridges stronger, relocating rail lines, and perhaps duplicating electricity lines.

Paul’s message is that we need a stronger national effort to develop resilient infrastructure that’s adaptable and robust to respond to future demands.

While we have a 2010 national critical infrastructure resilience strategy that encourages organisations to ‘develop a more organic approach to deal with rapid on-set shock’, it isn’t clear whether our infrastructure managers have resilience measures for the various contexts they face or particularly sufficient knowledge on how failures in one system can lead to disruptions in others.

It’s not just the vulnerability of critical infrastructure systems either. It’s also whether there are inadequacies in our governance arrangements: many of the coupled infrastructure systems across northern Australia don’t follow jurisdictional boundaries. (The Australian government’s recent white paper on northern Australia defined the region as all of the Northern Territory and those parts of Western Australia and Queensland above the Tropic of Capricorn.)

Understanding the nature of damage to infrastructure resulting from natural hazards is critical.  It’s interesting here to look at the National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy that was released by Environment Minister Greg Hunt in December last year.

That strategy states that in northern Australia, an important climate adaptation is building housing that is more resilient to cyclones:

‘On average, cyclones cause more than $630 million in damages per year, and this is likely to increase into the future. Learning from past experiences, the insurer Suncorp has partnered with James Cook University to analyse insurance claim data to better understand cyclone vulnerabilities in homes, and what can be done to address them. This research shows that simple, low-cost disaster mitigation can pay for itself after just one cyclone.’

Two processes in particular are worth progressing. First, apply the approach taken by Suncorp in response to north Queensland cyclones to provide insurance driven incentives for making identified improvements to houses derived from research on where such changes directly impact preventable damage in structures caused by cyclones. And second, identify assets that are vulnerable by location to known impacts of disasters and seek to strengthen those assets to reduce service recovery time.