Is Australia ready for natural disasters?

Image: Cyclone Debbie/NASA on Flickr

Australia would be significantly challenged to respond to, and recover from, two successive storms on the scale of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey that have hit the US in recent weeks.

The recovery costs from Harvey alone, according to the Texas governor, will cost at least $US225 billion ($287bn). The insurance tally for Cyclone Debbie earlier this year has passed $1.4bn, with claims from far north Queensland to northern NSW.

Last year the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities found that $17bn will be needed to directly replace critical infrastructure between 2015 and 2050 due to the impact of natural disasters in Australia.

In 2015 the total economic cost of natural disaster events in Australia exceed ed $9bn. These costs are expected to rise to an average of $33bn per year by 2050.

But the study found that carefully targeted investment in resilience measures now will reduce estimated expenditure by Australian governments on natural disaster relief and recovery by more than 50 per cent by 2050.

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. We need to reduce regional exposure by making development decisions for exposed locations over the planned life cycle of a development, and strengthening local infrastructure to achieve an acceptable residual risk of damage.

Building codes need to be improved to ensure that built structures remain viable to predictable events over their planned life cycle. Two years ago, the Productivity Commission identified natural hazard risk as the key driver of insurance premiums. It found that 97 per cent of disaster funding is spent after a disaster and only 3 per cent goes toward mitigation and preparedness.

It recommended that the federal government increase its mitigation funding fourfold to $200m a year matched by the states and territories. The Turnbull government has rejected this, but a report from the Senate Committee on Economics last month recommended the government reconsider its decision.

The best way to lower home and strata insurance premiums over the long term and reduce the losses from natural disasters is through public investment in mitigation to protect infrastructure. Research into cyclone damage, for example, has found that the severity of losses during cyclones could be reduced by carrying out a series of relatively minor reinforcements or additions to homes.

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.

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.

Mitigation is fundamentally about micro-economic reform. The economic costs of rebuilding communities is shared by all Australians when commonwealth funds are dispersed for recovery. When it comes to safeguarding our communities against natural disasters, prevention is always better than cure.

We should establish a “chief resilience officer” for Australia to help break down “silos” between national agencies responsible for infrastructure planning and disaster management. A chief resilience officer, answerable to the prime minister, would help the nation better withstand, nimbly respond, recover, and adapt to the inevitable disruptions heading our way.

This article fisrt appeared in The Australian.

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Is Australia ready for natural disasters?

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