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Disaster risk management: Australian challenges

Australia is exposed to a variety of natural and technological disaster risks, which vary in their significance across the nation. Communities are faced with the increasing costs of disaster losses due to higher wealth and the increasing development of hazardous areas, whilst Government budgets are under pressure. Climatic, demographic, economic, political and technological changes are acting to shape future disaster risks.

Internationally, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction exists with the goal to: “prevent new and reduce existing disaster risk through the implementation of integrated and inclusive economic, structural, legal, social, health, cultural, educational, environmental, technological, political and institutional measures that prevent and reduce hazard exposure and vulnerability to disaster, increase preparedness for response and recovery, and thus strengthen resilience”

Within the Australian context the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience outlines a series of outcomes focused on better understanding disaster risks. In addition, recent Australian Government inquiries have stressed the importance of risk-based approaches to land-use planning and disaster mitigation in an attempt to manage both future and residual disaster risks.

Disaster mitigation efforts globally have been recognised to provide greater benefits than the costs of their implementation. However, in Australia investment in mitigation is challenged by state-based agencies that largely remain response focused and are over-reliant on the provision of Australian Government disaster relief funding. Current economic conditions requiring fiscal austerity also act to limit mitigation investments.

Effective disaster risk management is at the core of building safe and resilient communities. However, in the Australian context disaster risk management practices require more attention to drive the risk-based investment of scarce funding. The nature of disaster risk, institutional governance arrangements and community expectation means that the effective management of risk is complex and faces many challenges. Such challenges and possible solutions are outlined in this article:

Flooded goods from home in Lismore, New South Wales 2017.

Ensuring risk assessments are comprehensive and evidence-based

Existing Australian approaches to all-hazards risk assessment in practice largely rely on qualitative approaches informed by subject matter expert opinion and limited scientific and historical evidence. Often in practice subject matter experts may be unavailable, leaving local response agency representatives that may have little knowledge of the risk assessment process or of local risk profiles to contribute. Qualitative approaches are also subject to bias. This lies in contrast with approaches adopted by the insurance sector that rely heavily on quantitative approaches to measure risk across all perils. Some specific lead agencies employ more detailed numerical approaches in hazard-specific risk assessments (for example flood mapping); however, differing approaches are used for different perils and it is difficult to compare such assessments. In the absence of a detailed comprehensive integrated evidence-based approach it is difficult to rely on largely qualitative assessments to decide all-hazards mitigation investment priorities. Work is needed to align the measurement of risk across different hazards to ensure the same risk metrics are utilised and measurement is evidence-based. Government and response agencies could learn much from insurance practice in this area.

Analysis of cost-effectiveness is plagued by similar issues, with different assumptions and approaches across different hazards leading to inconsistent information being delivered to decision makers. Alarmingly, it is even difficult to ascertain the cost effectiveness of commonplace mitigation actions like controlled burning in the case of bushfires. Therefore, a greater evaluative evidence base about the effectiveness of different mitigation measures across the full spectrum of hazards is needed.

The robust assessment and cost effectiveness must be balanced with the cost and expertise required to implement such enhanced approaches. It is important that such improvements are adequately resourced and ultimately are pragmatic.

Ensuring risks are owned and managed

Though disaster response arrangements are often clear and regularly exercised, it is not always clear where responsibility lies for managing certain disaster risks in the contexts of prevention and preparation. As a general principle assigning disaster risks to accountable risk owners is essential if risk are to be managed. Formal disaster risk management governance arrangements covering all-hazards must always be practiced to ensure risks are identified, prioritised, managed and monitored in an integrated and coordinated manner.

Observations of current and historical approaches to disaster risk management in Australia suggest that we may be trapped in a continuous cycle of risk assessment rather than spending the necessary effort on disaster mitigation. Indeed, many such investments are, often linked to government responses to community outrage following disasters rather than being part of a holistic approach to disaster risk management.

There are significant opportunities to enhance the disaster risk management of government-owned infrastructure assets whose replacement often accounts for significant proportions of disaster losses. Incorporation of disaster risks in asset management plans should be standard practice. This should be the responsibility of the respective asset owner.

Trucks washed down creek in Lismore, New South Wales 2017.

Ensuring effective sharing of risk information

Information sharing regarding disaster risks among different government agencies has improved in recent years. However, further efforts are needed to improve the sharing of information between governments, businesses and communities. It is essential that information about the exposure of essential services and associated consequences of disruption are known and inform the overall assessment of risk. It is also important that risks be disclosed to communities so that they can make informed decisions. Citizens may also play important roles in collecting risk information through citizen science methods.

Achieving community buy-in and participation

Disaster risk management is a collective responsibility of all elements of society. Though this principle is widely recognised, its implementation has proved difficult as citizen expectations on government services have increased. The roles and responsibilities of governments and agencies are often clearly detailed in legislation and disaster plans. However, with the potential exception of building regulations, the roles of community members are largely undocumented and uncertain.

Communities and individuals vary in their appetite and capacity to participate in decision-making for disaster risk management, and in the case of infrequent hazards maybe largely apathetic. However, when engaged there is often an expectation that they will be able to participate and are well placed to inform local priorities for decision-making.

Achieving true community buy-in through effective two-way dialogue is a complex challenge. Approaches must be tailored to individual communities based upon knowledge of the community’s values and attitudes; community members must be considered as equals, both local and expert scientific knowledge must be utilised; and the disaster risk management sector culture must ultimately support approaches to allow community participation. This sharing of responsibility is infrequently achieved by response focused agencies in practice.

Avoidance of a catastrophic paradox

Current disaster risk management policies may be considered counter intuitive in that rather than reducing levels of extreme or catastrophic risk, some existing approaches largely tend to focus on reducing consequences that frequently occur and encourage increases in the impacts for hazard magnitudes that rarely occur. An example of this is the adoption of the 1-in-100 year average recurrence interval flood in land use planning policies. In this case development is restricted for flood events that occur frequently, but not for rarer events. Events of lower frequency are ignored and the lack of more common minor events leads the community to believe the problem is solved. Essentially such an approach attempts to manage risk on the basis of probability only, while exaggerating the costs of low probability events when they do occur.

An alternate approach would be to take a true risk based perspective to developing hazardous areas accounting for possible consequences across all possible hazard magnitudes to avoid possible catastrophic thresholds being reached.


In the adoption of the Sendai Framework it will be necessary that Australian disaster management practitioners address the challenges facing the effective implementation of disaster risk management practices. Though there is growing recognition of the limitations of disaster response efforts particularly in the face of catastrophic events, there is still a need for significant cultural and institutional change to adopt policies that place significance on assessing and managing disaster risks as advocated in the Sendai Framework.

Despite calls to increase government expenditure, disaster mitigation funding will likely remain a significant challenge as many other priorities compete for scarce government dollars. There is a need to explore and investigate innovative methods of assessing and managing disaster risks to maximise the benefits of investment and to ensure policy settings promote investment. Alternate methods to encourage disaster mitigation investment by government and communities may also be considered. Ultimately, the existing breakdown of funding across the disaster management cycle must change. Without change disasters will continue to pose increasing direct and opportunity costs for all Australians.

For more information, go to www.riskfrontiers.com

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Andrew Gissing is Director of Resilience and Government Business at Risk Frontiers.

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