Australia needs to acknowledge that combatting a hazard that never presents itself in the same way twice means we are always on the back foot. However, there are more strategies and actions within our control than we are currently taking advantage of.

Fires raged up and down the east coast of Australia from September 2019 until March 2020. It’s still fresh for the communities affected, with Black Summer recognised as the nation’s deadliest bushfire on record for both fatalities and the devastating loss of biodiversity.

Flooding in south-east Queensland between December 2010 and January 2011 may not have broken any records for rainfall but was notable for the widespread extent of the flooding and damage.

However, records are being smashed with the catastrophic flooding in south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales this year. Floodwaters peaked at around 14.4 metres in Lismore. That’s two metres higher than the previous record. With more rain predicted, we’re still in the thick of the disaster zone.

Australia is prone to extreme weather events and natural disasters. This has always been true. However, the scope and scale of natural disasters are on the rise. We are facing more mega-disasters than ever before, and we are unprepared for the next one.

It is not as simple as saying that mega-disasters are happening because of increased hazards – such as climate change or increased rainfall intensity. Disasters occur when hazards meet vulnerable communities or systems.

Much effort has gone into hazard assessment, such as flood mapping, but risk assessment models and practices to identify and act on vulnerabilities are still subject to high uncertainty.

An apparent vulnerability is inappropriate land-use planning like building a structure on a floodplain or inadequate management of resources. Vulnerabilities also include physical frailties, like the materials used in a structure, or systemic issues within lifeline networks and infrastructures due to how interconnected or how much redundancy and transferability capacity are provided.

All our effort traditionally goes into combatting the hazard itself rather than identifying vulnerabilities and building resilience in our communities and networks. However, our current approach does not serve us well in an era where we know more and more significant disasters will be ahead of us. We must move from hazard management toward risk management and vulnerability mitigation.

A global movement from reactive policy to proactive policy

This is a challenge for every country – not just Australia. International frameworks, such as the Disaster Risk Reduction framework 2015-2030, adopted at the 3rd UN World Conference in Sendai, Japan, are a clear signal of a global movement away from reactive activities (response and recovery = disaster management) to proactive actions (prevention and mitigation = disaster reduction).

Natural disaster prevention activities are more cost-effective and less uncertain than response. They are also closely aligned with the vision and mission of sustainable development.

Although the emergency response is very successful in Australia in terms of saving human lives, preparedness for natural disaster impacts with reference to loss reduction and damage mitigation has been less successful. Thus, future research and risk governance need changes to focus on lessening and managing disaster risks and natural hazard impacts. So, “better to build a fence at the top of a cliff than park an ambulance at the bottom.”

Structural mitigation measures are only part of the picture

Structural measures consist primarily of engineering works designed to manage natural hazards or intervene with the hazard itself, such as flood bunds constructed to protect people. Structural measures are also applied to the physical vulnerability of exposed properties, such as retrofitting buildings and infrastructures, or community response, such as the utilisation of sandbags in flood events.

However, structural measures aimed at mitigating hazards (such as levees or drainage infrastructures) have certainly received the most attention until very recently, to the point that they have sometimes contributed paradoxically to increasing the overall level of risk – for instance, the vicious cycle of levees, urban development, flood, levee upgrade, new development, more catastrophic flood.

In addition, reliance on these measurements may indirectly lower the level of the awareness and preparedness of the community.

These measures are necessary and effective in the short-term. However, our experience has demonstrated that they are not sufficient and efficient for long-term and sustainable risk mitigation, considering how uncertain the future intensity, complexity, or frequency of future natural or mega-disasters may be. We need to do more.

Non-structural mitigation measures are required

Social, economic, and managerial adjustments can make communities and settlements more resilient and less vulnerable to various threats. A large variety of actions can be considered, but it fundamentally comes down to two main focus areas: land use planning and facilities location, and organisational and social strengthening through training, preparedness and risk awareness programs.

Focusing on community risk preparedness and awareness programs with a significant emphasis on schools and children is an immediate need. Educating children is crucial as children are more vulnerable during a disaster. They are also great transmitters of knowledge to the next generation. Experience in other countries such as Japan has shown that children are quick learners and great trainers for their parents.

Application of ICT (information communications technology) in response and early warning systems

Response and early warning systems rely heavily on information, data and communications networks to inform affected communities of imminent hazards and actions to take. As technology improves, so to does the potential to track, mitigate and respond to natural disasters.

In reviewing the current practices of different countries regarding early warning systems, Handmer (2001) found that Australia is well established compared to European Union countries. However, the ICT and artificial intelligence applications for producing risk alerts and managing big real-time data need more attention and investment.

With better systems, we can improve the reliability of forecasts, create a real-time system for risk management, promote improved collaboration between disaster management agencies, and communicate information with the public to enhance response efficiency.

Impacts matter to communities, not the probability of occurrence: It is an immediate need to make conversations about impacts and update damage assessment methods to quantify flood risk better

Flood is known to be the costliest natural disaster in Australia and the world. The Insurance Council of Australia recently revealed that the flooding in New South Wales and Queensland this year is the costliest flood to ever strike the country, with an estimated $3.35 billion in insured losses. Considering many people are underinsured, the actual cost may be even higher.

This is not a one-off catastrophe. When a disaster occurs in densely populated urban areas, the damage bill is high, and the population displacement is considerable. To cope with these challenges and grow sustainably, urban developments should be planned based on a good understanding of disaster risks. Understanding disaster risk is the primary step of the UN Disaster Risk Reduction framework. In this regard, since the risk is defined as the probability and magnitude of expected losses, the estimation of negative consequences and probable damages could be considered the core element of understanding disaster risk.

While much effort has gone into emergency management and flood mapping, flood damage models are still crude, and understanding of the damage process is highly limited. Accordingly, flood impact assessment methods need to be more carefully considered to protect the population against future flood scenarios, increase the resilience of communities and businesses, and systematically decrease the probability of losses.

In other words, flood damage estimation is an indispensable part of flood risk management, which is required for vulnerability assessment, risk map preparation, top priority location identification, an optimal decision on mitigation options, and financial appraisal fulfilment. Awareness of these issues is essential for strategic decision-making in flood risk reduction. It could amplify the understanding of decision-makers and insurance companies about flood risk assessment in Australia.

There is still much to learn about disaster mitigation

A consequence of living in a country of extreme weather means that disasters and mega-disasters will always be a feature. We need to acknowledge that combatting a hazard that never presents itself in the same way twice means we are always on the back foot. However, there are more strategies and actions within our control than we are currently taking advantage of.

When resilience means building back better – not just building back the same – it is critical that we accurately document and archive past experiences so we can learn what to do differently. While Australia is very good at responding to natural disasters, we can do better in collecting and analysing past events to inform future planning. We have to live with the former, but we can influence and control the latter.  

A holistic disaster mitigation program that looks at vulnerability mitigation, land use planning, awareness and preparedness training, and investment in technology will be essential if we are to mitigate the impact of natural disasters and mega-disasters on our communities in the future. From what we have experienced in the last few years, we can all agree that Australia can do better.

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  1. This is why we need properly qualified Emergency Managers who have undertaken specific studies in disasters and who are properly resourced, and authorised. It is their role to develop systems and processes to prevent or mitigate disasters. We need educational and career pathways for practitioners where they can build their skills, knowledge, experience and careers. 

    The global community can no longer afford to place unqualified person in these positions, to tick a box when we know without a doubt that these types of events will continue, we need people who are specialised and whose knowledge has been evaluated.

    Emergency Management is a unique discipline progressing towards becoming a profession. We need to treat it as such and demand more from governments. These are the individuals that help to educate and empower communities.

  2. While I agree there needs to be change you are significantly misunderstanding the community’s most important tool. In your article you state “ reactive activities (response and recovery = disaster management) to proactive actions (prevention and mitigation = disaster reduction).” that is not accurate… at all. Disaster management, also known as Emergency Management is about Prevention, Mitigation, preparedness, Response, and Recovery. The reactive approach is an outdated concept that is part of the old Civil Defence era and emergency service NOT contemporary practices. The reason is continues is because the people in charge are all Emergency Services personnel who have little to no qualifications in Emergency Management. Not an opinion, this is based on extensive research carried out over the past decade which highlights Australia flaws in EM caused by a small number of people with lots of authority and who trample over anyone who speaks out. This is the problem as it shuts down contemporary practices and drives outdated concepts under the guise of EM when in reality it is either Civil Defense or emergency services and response but it is certainly. It Contemporary Emergency Management/ Disaster Management

  3. Great article Roozbeh – a holistic disaster mitigation program (including research) has great merit, and certainly links to the climate change action agendas of many in the newly elected federal parliament. An ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure (old money) is definitely rational.
    However, if Australia needs to equitably ‘build back better – not just building back the same’, is there sufficient policy and financial appetite across all levels of government currently? Who will drive this?
    At the local level we have already seen Councils spending ratepayers’ money protecting beachside properties not always passing the pub test for equity, with most Councils having limited financial capacity for other services.
    A climate National Disaster Mitigation Insurance Scheme perhaps?