CEO of Natural Hazards Research Australia, Dr Richard Thornton, reflects on the floods in Queensland and NSW, and how we can improve our mitigation, response and recovery.
The full force of nature has again been felt on the east coast, leaving a trail of death and destruction. The recent devastating floods in Queensland and New South Wales have left many Australians with a mix of frustration, grief and anger. Tragically, people lost their lives. Homes, businesses, infrastructure, natural environments and agricultural land have all been impacted. The recovery process will be long and difficult, and communities will need tailored support.
The time has come to cease using the word ‘unprecedented’. It is unhelpful. These floods have precedents, and it is inevitable they will occur again, along with devastating bushfires and cyclones. Just like the 2019–20 bushfires, these floods should force us – again – to rethink our relationship with nature.
Living in some parts of Australia has always been fraught with danger. Calls to permanently move people out of harm’s way sound logical, but it is just not practical to move every home or community that could be threatened. Buybacks of at-risk areas have been tried in the past at a small scale, with mixed success. We all love where we live.
The manifestation of our risk today has been created by decisions made in the past. Our decisions today are creating the risks of the future – we must make wise ones. We need to understand the possibilities as well as the limits to what we can do to reduce risk in different places.
Climate change creates conditions that cause severe weather systems to occur more regularly and intensely, across a wider area. We can’t keep repeating response, clean-up and recovery, in an attempt to get things back to how they were. Business-as-usual is not an option.
Firstly, we must build on what we know
Our collective knowledge on fire, flood and storm is large, and we have hundreds of recommendations from inquiries and scientific expertise in weather, engineering and community behaviour that must guide us. The Inquiries and Reviews Database, accessible at tools.bnhcrc.com.au/ddr/home and created through Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC research, is a fantastic starting point. This database will be updated by Natural Hazards Research Australia as new inquiries report.
Mitigation is the key to doing things better today. If I were to tell you that your house will be inundated with water tomorrow, you would immediately think of things to do with a very reactionary approach. What if I were to tell you that the same house would flood a year from today? Would you act?
Our use of land is critical to reducing future risk. Hard questions need to be answered about where and how to rebuild, that may take longer to get right. This should take place before, not during the disaster or in the immediate aftermath. Research into the long-term sustainability of our communities can ensure we are not repeating mistakes but building on what works.
Secondly, we must focus on what we don’t know
Either our knowledge is falling short or we are unable to act on what we have learnt. We must do better. We need to better understand where most of the impacts were felt. Past research, including CRC research from Prof Mehmet Ulubasoglu, has shown that disasters disproportionally affect the most marginalised and vulnerable groups and can increase the gaps between the haves and have nots.
We need to be better at predicting and tracking severe events, managing landscapes for fire and flood safety, building smarter houses and other infrastructure, and preparing our workforces, both volunteer and paid, for a future with natural hazards on increasingly larger scales.
We need to continually improve how we warn communities, so they can take action. A warning may be urgent in the next five minutes. It may be the weekly weather forecast. It may be in the historical records that show an area floods often and with force. Awareness of risk is built up over the long-term.
We must base our emergency management policies and planning on research and evidence that better includes a multi-agency and multi-government response across large areas. We must look to Indigenous knowledge and historical analysis for new insights.
At the community level, we need to find affordable and sustainable ways of funding our mitigation, response and recovery. Insurance must be accessible and affordable, as part of risk management. If the risk is so high that properties are uninsurable, that is of no benefit to the homeowner or the insurance industry and risks a market failure.
These areas are part of the focus of Natural Hazards Research Australia. We have been asking the question – what knowledge is needed to get Australia ready for the next big disaster, and the next? This is the research the country needs to focus on now, to make us safer and to reduce the economic, social and environmental impacts of natural hazards.
For more information, go to naturalhazards.com.au