28 June 2011 – Almost half of those surveyed by global engineering company MWH in an Australia-wide study of attitudes to natural disasters believe not enough is being done to improve infrastructure to prepare for such events.

Twenty four per cent of those surveyed favoured making infrastructure wholly resistant to an event but it was unclear whether they appreciated what that would cost, the survey says.
MWH commissioned the study to establish the attitude of Australians toward natural disasters – their frequency, severity, cause and impact on both critical infrastructure and wellbeing

Results were weighted to the population estimates according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia scores were applied so the data was analysed according to three broad categories: cities, regional and remote.

The online survey of 2148 people aged 18 years and over conducted by Lonergan Research showed an increasing anxiety about the threat of natural disasters, both in terms of their impact on the nation, and their personal vulnerability to, in particular, a bushfire or a severe drought or flood event.

Nearly half (45 per cent) supported the government doing more to protect Australia and prepare for natural disasters with 27 per cent believing the government is not doing enough and 28 per cent not aware.

According to MWH managing director, Australia, Peter Williams the findings raise legitimate concerns about the future and should be incorporated into planning processes, “as we repair the damage from recent events and move to deliver in excess of $700 billion of infrastructure across Australia over the next few years. We all have a role to play in building a future that allows us to cope better with the trials that natural disasters will inevitably throw our way”.

Following are highlight:

Cause for alarm?

Australians feel the threat of natural disasters.

Overall, the majority (85 per cent) believe the number of natural disasters this country has experienced recently to be higher than the long-term average (43 per cent much higher, 41 per cent a little higher).

Women are more susceptible to this belief with 91 per cent of females believing disasters are increasing in frequency (compared with 78 per cent of men) and 77 per cent fearing they will become more prevalent over coming decades (compared with 63 per cent of men).

The majority believe our country is most vulnerable (93 per cent extremely or very vulnerable) to bushfires, followed by drought (91 per cent), flood (84 per cent) and cyclones (73 per cent). Those  living in remote areas feel more vulnerable to all types of natural disaster than those living in cities.

More than one-third (36 per cent) are more concerned about the threat of bushfire than any other type of natural disaster.

With the memory of Black Saturday still present, Victorians feel most anxious about the threat of fire, with one in two (51 per cent) ranking it as their top concern.

Seven in 10 (71 per cent ) Australians predict that Australia will experience more natural disasters over the next 20 years than the long-term average (32 per cent much more, 39 per cent a little more).

Direct impact

Natural disasters have affected many surveyed in several ways

  • 18 per cent have experienced or been evacuated from a significant natural disaster
  • 32 per cent have been on alert of a significant disaster which did not ultimately become a direct threat.
  • One in ten (10 per cent) have experienced smaller scale or more localised natural disasters
  • 36 per cent have friends or family who experienced or had to evacuate from a significant natural disaster
  • 13 per cent have been involved in protecting people or property from a natural disaster.

Those living in Queensland are the most likely to have experienced or had to evacuate from a significant natural disaster (31 per cent) compared with the national average 18 per cent). To have been on alert from a significant natural disaster (45 per cent) compared with national average 32 per cent), and to have friends or family who have experienced or had to evacuate from a significant natural disaster (47 per cent compared with national average 36 per cent).

Climate change

A total of 85 per cent believe that climate change is real, however more than half (58 per cent) of these think the threat and impact of climate change may be overstated.

Amongst the believers in climate change, 92 per cent agree that human activity has at least some role. Most (58 per cent) see a strong link between climate change and human activity – 13 per cent believing that climate change is almost entirely caused by human activity and 45 per cent considering human activity to be the main culprit.

75 per cent of Australians believe there is a link between climate change and the frequency and severity of natural disasters (25 per cent a large impact, 50 per cent a small impact).

Those living in Western Australia are the most likely to believe that climate change has an impact on the frequency and severity of natural disasters (79 per cent compared with the national average 75 per cent).

Australians living in remote areas (16 per cent) are less likely to believe climate change has a large impact on the frequency and severity of natural disasters than those in regional (23 per cent) or city (28 per cent) areas.

Infrastructure resilience

There is a lack of confidence amongst many in critical infrastructure.

Just 39 per cent believe the critical infrastructure is strong enough to withstand a large bushfire, 38 per cent a drought, 32 per cent flood, 31 per cent a cyclone, 14 per cent an earthquake and 12 per cent a tsunami.

Only one in four Australians (27 per cent) consider the government is doing enough to protect the nation from natural disasters with 45 per cent believing  the  government can do more to protect residents and prepare for natural disasters (28 per cent unsure).

Although only 22 per cent believe Australia is vulnerable to tsunami, and 17 per cent to earthquake, 51 per cent consider government should be building more early warning systems for earthquakes and tsunamis.

Despite the widespread devastation and loss of life caused by this year’s floods and cyclones, those living in Queensland are most likely to believe that the government is doing enough to protect the population and prepare for natural disasters (32 per cent compared with national average 27 per cent).

Government guardian

Almost all (98 per cent) support government spending money to make infrastructure better able to cope with natural disasters.

One-quarter (24 per cent) favour the resistance approach – investing in infrastructure that can withstand natural disasters. This might involve the strengthening of critical infrastructure so it would be better able to withstand the impact of an event (69 per cent) or the construction of dams to collect water in times of drought and protect properties in times of flood (65 per cent).

In contrast, almost one-third (31 per cent) prefer the resilience approach, favouring a lower level of spending that allows critical infrastructure to be quickly restored in the wake of a disaster.

For example, 66 per cent favour decentralised infrastructure so an entire system is not shut down when impacted by an event. Similarly, 62 per cent would like to see Australian Standards updated to mitigate future damage and allow services to be more rapidly restored. 43 per cent believe there should be a balanced approach.

Of interest, despite the insurance fallout following the 2011 Queensland floods the desire of Queenslanders for increased governmental insurance was no greater than for other states. (59 per cent Queensland, 59 per cent total).

NSW priorities

In NSW residents believe their state government should be spending more money on critical infrastructure across the board.

Most (78 per cent) NSW residents believe the government should be putting more emphasis on protecting the state from natural disasters than the previous administration.

Sydney residents have distinctly different priorities to those living in regional and remote NSW with  72 per cent of Sydney-siders prioritising  better public transport above all else.

In contrast, NSW residents living outside Sydney want the government to invest in dams (57 per cent), amending existing planning legislation (54 per cent) and future proofing existing infrastructure in high risk areas (55 per cent).

Pay to protect

A total of 98 per cent want the government to spend more so infrastructure is better able to cope with natural disasters.

Those surveyed were willing to contribute to that cost but the additional amount they would be willing to pay to insure against disruption is only marginally more than the average annual household expenditure.

On average they were willing to spend most to protect the supply of fresh water ($28.70 per annum), followed by electricity ($26.90), sanitation ($26.90), roads ($23.60) and rail ($19.50).

City dwellers would spend the most on roads ($37.80 compared with regional $34.70 and remote $34.70) and rail ($38.10 compared with regional $30.80 and remote $32.40).

Overall, Western Australians are prepared to pay most to protect their critical infrastructure against disruptions.

editorial@thefifthestate.com.au