When it comes to natural disaster resilience, let’s not short-change mitigation efforts
12 Sep 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Ian Britton

Touring flood-affected Tasmania in June this year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned that natural disasters will become more severe as climate change worsens.

He emphasised the need for greater mitigation measures: ‘we have to be very alert to natural disasters and… the importance to make a greater commitment right across Australia to ensuring that we have the measures in place to mitigate the impact of natural disasters’.

The importance of mitigation as a key element of a long-term plan for how we prepare for natural disasters was my key message to over 2000 representatives of Australia’s emergency management industry at the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) conference in Brisbane recently.

I addressed several challenges. Betterment—that’s rebuilding an asset to a more disaster-resilient standard—is rarely undertaken in Australia. It’s our practice to rebuild damaged infrastructure to its original state after disaster hits, rather making choices that might involve making our roads higher, bridges stronger, relocating rail lines and even, in some areas, duplicating electricity lines.

The key finding of the Productivity Commission’s December 2014 report on natural disaster funding arrangements was that 97% of disaster funding is spent after a disaster and only 3% goes toward mitigation and preparedness.

That equation needs to be rebalanced. The economic costs of rebuilding communities is shared by all Australians when Commonwealth funds are dispersed for recovery.

The Commission’s report made some very sensible suggestions as to why we should be boosting investment in disaster prevention: our economy won’t suffer as much damage in a disaster, we can unlock productivity gains, and importantly, homeowners and businesses should pay less for insurance as their risk drops.

Investing in a range of measures, such as flood mitigation infrastructure and programs that strengthen homes in cyclone prone regions, will protect life and property, save taxpayer dollars and grow the economy.

The Commission’s central recommendation was that the federal government significantly increase its mitigation funding to $200 million a year.

That would be a smart investment. The onus is now on the Turnbull government to act on the Commission’s final report. The government’s only action to date has been to refer findings to the states for consultation.

We should be adopting the general approach that the insurance arm of Suncorp has taken in response to north Queensland cyclones: 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.

We should be identifying assets that are vulnerable by location to known impacts of disasters and seeking to strengthen those assets to reduce service recovery time. In these areas we need a targeted mitigation program that reduces vulnerability to the most common types of damage.

This should also be an approach that property investors embrace: projects built with resilience in mind should enjoy greater sales and leasing success by offering assurance about the integrity of the project. And more resilient projects will benefit from greater long-term maintenance savings and higher overall value compared to more vulnerable properties.

When it comes to justifying mitigation spending to those charged with looking after our public finances, I’d say that ‘money doesn’t talk, it screams’. We need more economic analysis to advocate for government investment in mitigation.

My key national policy suggestion offered at the AFAC conference was to establish a Chief Resilience Officer for Australia.

Melbourne and Sydney have appointed city-focused Chief Resilience Officers with support from the Rockefeller 100 resilient cities program. They consider a range of sustainability factors and promote agile forms of city governance.

An Australian Chief Resilience Officer could help break down ‘silos’ between national agencies responsible for infrastructure planning, housing, healthcare, education, disaster management and environmental protection.

We have the Office of the Chief Scientist and the Chief Medical Officer of Australia. An Australian Chief Resilience Officer, answerable to the Prime Minister, would, I believe, help the nation better withstand, nimbly respond, recover, and adapt to the inevitable disruptions heading our way.

It’s about nurturing the shared capabilities to enable the nation to face significant challenges that can disrupt the way we normally live. The tasks are so many and varied that a single national focus point for resilience thinking and coordination will yield the results.

In my AFAC speech I used a medical analogy to argue why we shouldn’t be short-changing mitigation in disaster management. Don’t put off preparation for resilience for it will cost us a lot more if we do, just as it’s done with disease.

In our societal response to human disease we have prevention, treatment and recovery.

Treatment is about first aid and modern medicine, and it’s received the most attention because it’s urgent and can’t be postponed.

Recovery is about rehabilitation, supported by ongoing vigilance. Some people, just like some communities after disasters, recover better than others.

The prevention side of public health measures followed last, despite what we now know about its critical importance to longevity.

Sticking with the disease analogue we should be investing more in mitigation because it’s the ‘preventive health’ piece of the community resilience story.

We shouldn’t, however, be framing this as a cost—just as we don’t think about public health measures in this way when it comes to disease. Mitigation is fundamentally about micro-economic reform.