Turbulent times ahead for Australian humanitarian assistance and disaster relief

Australia has demonstrated the capacity and capability to undertake fast, scalable responses to disasters and humanitarian crises in recent years. Australian governments, agencies, non-government organisations and the public have proven determined and flexible in both domestic and regional disasters and humanitarian crises.

But Australia’s established capabilities are now facing new and growing challenges in disaster preparedness and response. The Indo-Pacific is confronting a complex network of established, evolving and intersecting climate, conflict and human-security risks.

Without innovation in strategy and capabilities, the financial cost of regional disasters will continue to vastly outpace Australia’s capacity to fund preparedness and response efforts comprehensively enough to mitigate the human and strategic security risks those disasters pose.

Australia’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) strategies need to consider how to increase capacities for speed, coordination, communication, agility, flexibility, mobility and capability by making better use of the resources already allocated to organisations involved in HADR work, and so that any additional funding has maximum impact.

In addition to maintaining the necessary crisis response capacity regionally and at home, Australia needs to build greater regional preparedness for (the capacity to endure) and resilience to (the capacity to recover from) the natural disasters that are coming and the cascading risks they will bring.

My new ASPI report, released today, focuses on Australia’s HADR capabilities and capacity to respond and mitigate risks by building preparedness and resilience regionally.

This is a challenging threatscape to prepare for and respond to.

The report presents a snapshot view of the Indo-Pacific threatscape for Australia and discusses how key Australian HADR capabilities have been developed through lessons from domestic and regional disasters. It also considers the possible value northern Australia can bring to national HADR capabilities and suggests six opportunities for providing a national-level HADR capability uplift in the short term with minimal increases in spending.

The six opportunities are grouped into three areas: strategy and innovation, regional engagement, and resources. For each proposal, I consider, where appropriate, opportunities for the north to better serve national efforts as a gateway and hub for resources, innovation and regional engagement. This is not an exhaustive list of opportunities, but rather an examination of how we can do more with what we have. Northern Australia is the focus for this study because it’s the area of Australia that is closest to the other countries of the Indo-Pacific region and shares a similar rate of disaster vulnerability.

Opportunity 1: A strategy for the north

Australia has a key role to play in the region as a democracy, partner, ally and middle power. Northern Australia isn’t only central within the region, but a bridge to many of our neighbours. Our cultural and community links to the region in our northern centres illustrate this point.

This isn’t to say that other parts of Australia don’t have similar connections, or that resources need to all go through northern cities rather than just northern sea and airspace. Rather, the northern connections could be better used in building resilience and preparedness in the region. Expanding the north’s role as a logistics and innovation connection to the region would encourage better linkages, particularly between government, university and NGO research centres in Australia and neighbouring nations, and force multiplication between established HADR capabilities in the north.

Opportunity 2: Research and training to build preparedness

Research, education and training are force multipliers. As it stands, HADR will always be on the back foot. HADR funding needs to be adjusted to adequately prioritise the research and training that will allow us to make the most of what we have. For example, the government could spend less on the Australian Defence Force’s capacity to respond to crises and more on research, education and training, which can increase preparedness in the areas in which Australia will then be called on to respond in crises.

Opportunity 3: International relationships as a safety net

Relationships are a safety net and, in a time of increased risk, Australia should actively invest in fortifying that safety net at all levels, from communities up to governments. For Australia and Japan, for example, the current momentum of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as a nascent but fervent understanding of shared values and interests in maintaining a free and open region stands in no small part on their commitments to one another’s security and prosperity. That in turn reflects the honest understanding that security and prosperity depend on cooperation in a region of many islands where none can afford to behave like one.

There are practical options for the federal government to invest in fortifying regional relationships between Australian and regional education and training institutions, between state and national governments, and even between community organisations in, for example, the arts and development sectors.

Opportunity 4: The role of the ADF

Increased security tensions in the Indo-Pacific pose the risk that military confrontations could occur at the same time as climate-related humanitarian crises in the region. Such a scenario would put Australia in the position of having to support military and HADR capabilities simultaneously, placing huge stress on Australian capabilities and resources, particularly given that major HADR responses in recent history have all relied heavily on the ADF (most recently, the 2019–20 bushfires and the Covid-19 vaccine rollout).

This is a clear vulnerability in Australia’s HADR strategies and capabilities because a military confrontation in defence of national security would have to take priority over regional or even domestic humanitarian crises. A federally led effort to reduce this exclusive reliance on the ADF would be a critical capability uplift for Australia. To avoid ADF involvement in HADR efforts in Australia and the region and to avoid corroding the ADF’s warfighting capability, Defence requires adequate resourcing, strategy and structure to lead HADR in addition to its core role.

Opportunity 5: A suitable and available workforce

The issue of a HADR workforce is perhaps the biggest problem in the reliance of the federal government on the ADF for HADR response. The current defence force ‘pivot to the north’, both Australian and American, needs to be accompanied by a HADR plan or Australia will continue to rely on the ADF for two problems that we can’t simultaneously address.

Australia needs a distinct non-military HADR capability, and, given the cascading risks associated with natural disasters possibly interacting with military confrontations, there’s a need for the significant defence spending in the north to be accompanied by, if not shared with, necessary civilian response capability and preparedness efforts.

Opportunity 6: Resource distribution

Expanding aeromedical evacuation hubs to Cairns and Townsville, in addition to Darwin, would enable efficient Australian HADR responses to the Pacific islands, with Darwin servicing Southeast Asia. This approach would mean patients could be transported less distance to a hub and then onwards to a hospital with patient capacity. Multiple northern hubs would also improve the scalability of responses to meet the need presenting in different areas.

As ever, there’s no magical or comprehensive fix to this challenging outlook, but there are opportunities for innovation in strategy and capabilities in Australia’s emergency-management architecture and arrangements. Those opportunities can increase preparedness and resilience in ways that might look small in comparison to the significance of the threatscape but will nevertheless have important impacts.