3 February 2011 – Adapting to floods, bushfires, and cyclones will not be cheap. Engineers say infrastructure cannot be made totally invulnerable, only resilient. But that will add to the cost. In the wake of extreme weather events, property may well become more expensive, at least in the short term.

Peter Williams, managing director of engineer MWH Australia, put it bluntly. “There are natural limits,’’ he says. “I don’t believe we can take human infrastructure and make it capable of dominating natural forces. The power of those forces will overwhelm whatever we might try to do.”

“If you design for invulnerability, you have a difficult proposition. It becomes a very expensive exercise and it becomes problematic as to whether you can make infrastructure invulnerable”

A better solution would be to design for some inevitable impact but create a resilience that would ensure less impact and quicker recovery.

With that approach, for example, more houses might be built on stilts. Plasterboard walls downstairs might be replaced by masonry where the water flows off quickly. The plasterboard walls might be just restricted to the top floor. Foundations could be made more solid. With certain pieces of infrastructure, it might be more cost effective to build it on the cheap, and then rebuild quickly after disaster strikes. In a bushfire zone, combustible materials should not be kept near the house and windows should have shutters.

“You may say that if I build in places that are going to inundate, then perhaps I should look at the kind of construction I would put in place so that if inevitably it gets wet, it becomes less of a nuisance value and less of a cost issue,” Williams says.

Peter Williams

“It’s probably going to have a cost but if you look at the whole of life asset, if you take into account the initial capital cost and the cost of recovery, then ultimately you are providing a lower cost whole of life solution.”

In other words, it’s less expensive in the long run because it lasts longer. But he concedes many would not see it that way. “It’s not such an easy proposition for someone trying to put something on the market and trying to keep the price to the minimum,” he says.

This means that companies and utilities around Australia will be crunching the numbers for some hard cost benefit analysis.  It will be done on a case-by-case basis. Williams says: “A coal mine might sit there and decide whether it’s worthwhile trying to hold back the flood waters or is the deferred cash flow impact so small that you don’t have to have a large investment. If you are a regional road owner, are you going to go back and raise the level of the road for hundreds of kilometres? You can do that but nobody’s going to pay for it.

“We need to take a sophisticated view of what sort of planning and design for your building you need to return back to the status quo after an event.”

Craig Clifton, climate change practice leader at engineering consultancy Sinclair Knight Merz, says cost increases are inevitable. Can we make human infrastructure invulnerable to climate events? In your dreams.

“I don’t believe you can flood proof, fire proof or drought proof the country and even if you did it for some, you can’t do it for all,’’ Clifton says.

“There’s no getting away from paying a cost. You pay the cost for protection, or you pay the cost for insurance.”

He says all this will mean making hard decisions, and the response by government and business so far has been inadequate.

Craig Clifton

Defend at any cost is not viable
“The ‘defend at any cost’ perspective that  characterised initial post flood recovery discussion does not provide a constructive basis for making decisions about appropriate types and levels of investment to enhance climate resilience.’’ he says.

“The range of options available for increasing climate resilience include education and awareness campaigns, more comprehensive risk-based flood insurance schemes, investments in defensive infrastructure, revamped building and infrastructure design and retreat from the most risky locations. In some circumstances, the best option may even be to accept additional damage and reduced levels of service.

“Either way, the adaptation options are likely to be context specific and need to be informed by judgements about what constitutes an acceptable level of risk for individuals, communities, organisations and government. It is heartening to see that as the flood recovery discussion matures a more nuanced response than ‘defend at any cost’ is emerging.

“To date, investment by government and industry in climate resilient design has been piecemeal and inconsistent. While a number of strategic studies on the possible impacts of climate change have been undertaken, this has not yet translated into widespread consideration of climate change in planning and projects.”

The government now has a number of bodies and committees looking at the issue. Standards Australia is now developing a standard for adapting to climate change. That standard will have an impact on the property and construction. But Standards Australia, which receives taxpayers’ money from the government, has refused to release details of that standard to the public or even talk about it. Very few officials and government funded entities are brave enough stick their necks out.

But Jean Palitukof, director of the national climate change adaptation research facility at Griffith University, says one of the big changes affecting the property industry might come from insurers being pulled into line.

“If there is one good thing out of this whole Brisbane flood event, insurance companies will have to offer greater clarity about the cover they are providing or even a level playing field so that all policies offer broadly the same degree of cover,’’ Professor Palitukof says. “That would be a big step forward because the insurance companies would have to think carefully about the size of the premiums people pay to get cover.

You would likely find that some properties are almost impossible to insure for a reasonable amount of money.”

And insurers, she says, are a better bet than changing planning laws.  It’s more feasible for governments to work with insurers than change planning laws. “In many ways, it’s easier for governments to work with big business than it is to work with electorates.”

Twitter post early 3 February 2011: Yasi approaches Queensland coast

In any case, she says, changing planning laws was not necessarily a long term solution.

“It’s difficult to do that in Queensland because you do get creep,’’ she says. “We will be careful for the next five years to make sure there is no housing development along flood plains but if nothing happens for five years, you will begin to see planning conditions relaxed and you will see creep back on to the flood plain.”

Barbara Norman, who sits on the government’s national coast and climate change council, says there are a number of things governments can do to adapt.
A professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Canberra, she says the first approach is to map areas of impact.

“The second thing is to overlay that where existing urban settlements are where planned urban growth corridors are so that we can identify the areas where most people are and where the highest risks are.,’’ Professor Norman says.

“After that, there is a suite of actions we need to look at and these go to identifying those areas we need to defend. Take for example the Gold Coast corridor on the edge of the foreshore. We probably need to set up some physical structure to defend that. Or we can modify our built forms for the new environment.

“The third category is where we retreat and say we have to step back from the coast or river banks or areas that are experiencing extreme heat.

“Finally, there will be areas that will be uninhabitable. Those will be the areas where we recommend we don’t build in the future. Those will be areas such as those experiencing coastal inundation or extreme heat.”

Peter Verwer

We need maps and an adaptation strategy
Peter Verwer, Property Council of Australia chief executive officer, says the government needs to map out all the vulnerabilities and risks. He says Canada and Europe are already way of Australia with their ADAM (Adaptation and Mitigation) strategies.

“Whether it be flood, bushfire, storm surges or more hot days, Australia needs to develop what’s called an adaptation strategy which will complement a mitigation strategy to climate change,’’ Verwer says.

Any strategies addressing climate variability, from insurance to built form, will flow from that mapping process. “Our fundamental position is that decisions cannot be made until an assessment of vulnerabilities has occurred,’’ he says.

But whether we like it or not, we will have to adapt, whether it means building differently or erecting flood barriers. Some will be done by governments, some by individuals. But it is a new order.

Kathy Mac Dermott, Executive Director of the Queensland division of the Property Council of Australia says we have to get used to it.

“We need to recognise that the impact of natural disasters be they flood, cyclone, fire or drought on infrastructure and property can never be fully avoided,’’ McDermott says.
“It is impossible to build or plan to eliminate all possible risks from natural disasters.
“Our focus and response in terms of infrastructure and residential, commercial, retail and industrial property should be on mitigating the impacts of these events so that their negative influence on our safety, economy and lifestyle is minimised.

“We need to focus on finding and embracing the engineering solutions that can achieve this. We need to ensure we do not respond to the floods with knee-jerk restrictions that will stifle appropriate development and investment.”
That will be the big challenge for the property industry and governments over the next few years.