As the first submissions come in and dates for public hearings are set I continue my series on the extreme weather and emergency preparedness senate inquiry. See Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. In this post I move onto the fourth term of reference:
(d) an assessment of the preparedness and the adequacy of resources in the emergency services sector to prevent and respond to extreme weather events;
I’m not going to focus on the preparedness and resourcing of the emergency services. With the many recent disasters there have been numerous commissions, inquires, inquests and other reports examining preparedness and making recommendations. There have been nearly 100 disaster related inquiries in Australia since 2000. We’ve also seen the rise of a trend towards other jurisdictions responding to and taking on the recommendations of these inquiries. There’s no doubt that the preparedness of our emergency services is improving all the time.
What I would like to discuss is the concept of preventing extreme weather events. (I’m going to assume that the ToR means preventing extreme weather induced disasters rather than the phenomena themselves). With the exception of activities such as prescribed burning, our emergency services generally have small roles in the prevention of extreme weather disasters.
Those charged with preventing disasters are largely based in other government departments, local government and the private sector. I’m going to look at what’s currently done, what more could be done and make some reference to the capacity of the relevant organisations to deliver.
Disaster prevention activities can be divided into three main areas: land use planning and building construction, hazard modification and hazard defences.
Land use planning and building construction
Land use planning can be applied to deal with any hazard with spatial variation. In Australia this includes bushfire, flood, coastal erosion and storm surge. All Australian States and territories have planning arrangements to address natural hazards. The strength and detail of these arrangements does vary between the jurisdictions.
Planning arrangements for natural hazards should be focussed on three primary and competing aims:
- Development in hazard prone areas should not create a risk-to-life (importantly this should consider likely human behaviour in an emergency event. Evacuation from the property and area shouldn’t be just feasible in an emergency, given what we know about human behaviour in evacuations, it should be likely.)
- Development in hazard prone areas should not create an unreasonable risk of significant damage or destruction of the property.
- Hazard prone areas should not be unreasonably sterilised.
Although many planning standards seem to meet these principles on paper none pay proper attention to the first. Application of planning standards has been criticised in NSW (which arguably has the most mature floodplain management system in the country) for their laissez-faire attitude to risks to life. Over-reliance on the “people save houses, houses save people” mantra may have contributed to development that placed people at risk during extreme bush fires. States are winding back coastal protection laws that will increase the number of properties eventually lost to sea level rise and multiply that loss by encouraging the construction of expensive coastal protection works that will eventually fail.
We can’t expect land-use planners to undertake detailed research into evacuation psychology each time they prepare a local planning instrument. Authorities need to develop clear and practical guidelines that take a precautionary approach with respect to life safety. When in some areas, the most extreme flood possible can put another 9 metres of water on top of the 1% AEP flood, the 1% AEP flood standard just doesn’t cut it.
Planning for these hazards requires detailed hazard modelling, the data collection for which can be very expensive. Reducing development in hazard prone areas also requires political commitment – a willingness to stand up to the development lobby who benefit from building in flood prone areas. This can make prevention of these disasters a very expensive exercise.
For new construction the best way to reduce disaster risk is through implementation of building codes. Building codes can be applied to both spatially varying hazards as well as those that affect larger areas. Australian building codes address risks from bushfire, hail, wind (including from tropical cyclones), heavy rain and earthquakes. A draft flood building code has also been developed. Building codes can be very effective at reducing damages. For instance, the tropical cyclone building codes have been so effective that their impact on disaster losses needed to be controlled for when normalising those losses. State Governments legislate to apply the building codes and can choose to apply more (or less) stringent controls.
Implementation of building codes is largely the responsibility of the private sector, although state and local governments provide an important monitoring and compliance role. I’m not aware of any evidence suggesting that construction standards are not being met with respect to natural hazards. However construction standards could be increased and there needs to be more to marry them to the hazard that a property is exposed to, such as in the NSW Planning for Bush Fire Protection manual.
One area that receives very little attention is designing houses to better cope with heat waves. The current tendency is to build the building and install an air conditioner. The use of energy efficient design and appropriate materials can increase the capacity of a house to cope with high heat and reduce reliance on air conditioners, thus decreasing strain on electricity networks. The use of these techniques needs much stronger encouragement.
Unfortunately land use planning and building codes can’t do much for existing risks. The equivalent measures for existing properties are buyback/land swaps and retrofitting.
Property Buyback and Land Swaps
Voluntary Purchase schemes have been used across Australia as a floodplain management measure. It’s most extensive application has probably been in in NSW where somewhere in the vicinity of several hundred properties have been purchased since the 80s.
Voluntary purchase schemes have also been used in the post-disaster context. The Victorian Bushfire Buy-back scheme is the only instance I know of voluntary purchase being used for bushfire risks, though this scheme is only targeted at those properties destroyed in the Black Saturday fires.
However property purchase tends to be expensive and have a low benefit-cost ratio. Most schemes are implemented where there is high risk-to-life, such as flash flood zones and other areas where evacuation is difficult. The expense limited availability of funding and voluntary nature of these programs make them difficult to implement.
An alternative to voluntary purchase is a land swap, where a council trades a piece of safer land for the hazard prone land. This has been applied in Grantham, QLD after the 2011 floods. The difference from voluntary purchase is that land swaps allow whole communities to be relocated. It could be applied in other areas of Australia, though it’s likely to only be practical post-disaster.
Land swaps could also be considered for properties at risk of coastal erosion. This would give these property owners an exit strategy for when they eventually lose their land (and house) due to coastal erosion.
However there is no framework in most of the country’s planning legislation to enable land swaps. Councils would also need to identify appropriate sites ahead of time, so they are able to make offers post-disaster.
The most practical way to protect old construction against hazards is through retrofitting, it’s something I’ve discussed before.
Unfortunately retrofitting a building to protect it and its occupants from natural hazards can be significantly more expensive than building those changes in from the start. In almost all circumstances the owner is expected to fund the changes themselves. One exception to this has been voluntary house raising, to mitigate against flooding. Buildings of a suitable construction can be raised to reduce the frequency that they’re flooded, but funding for homeowners is dependent on them being in an area where a scheme is operated by their council.
The Victorian Government has produced the only Australian example, that I’m aware of, of a manual to help homeowners retrofit their properties. Other examples of guidance also exist internationally, but there needs to be greater information provision to owners and builders to encourage retrofitting.
Knowledge of how to retrofit properties is probably not enough given the cost required to implement many of the measures. A number of options to provide the right incentive could be investigated such as low/no interest loans, grants or product subsidies to encourage retrofitting.
Insurance is another possible option. The Federal Government has been consulting with stakeholders in its response to the Natural Disaster Insurance Review. Insurers already take into account crime prevention measures (locks, bars, alarms etc.) when assessing premiums, why not do this with other hazards. The Government in any future disaster insurance scheme could create premium differentials based on homeowner installed mitigation measures.
The only two hazards that really lend themselves to being modified are flood and bushfire. Floods can be reduced by either reducing run-off or damming the flow for later release. Most large catchments in Australia already have some form of dam on them, some of which do have a flood mitigation function. However most of these have a primary water storage purpose, and as we saw in Brisbane they’re far from 100% effective in reducing flooding. Although flood detention basins can be effective at reducing (but not eliminating) flash flooding in urban areas, as infrastructure they are best considered as defences.
Bushfire on the other hand can be modified in a range of ways. Various interventions can reduce fire ignition, such as total fire bans and programs to combat arson. The one that receives the most attention is prescribed burning.
There’s a lot of research on prescribed burning (and other fuel management techniques) out there which can help form policy responses. There’s two possible limiting factors on prescribed burning, weather and resources. For prescribed burning to be most effective it needs to be concentrated in and around the urban bushland interface. This makes applying resources to the problem rather easier (as that’s where most bushfire volunteers are), but weather becomes trickier to deal with. Firstly the weather needs to be in a Goldilocks zone dry enough and warm enough for the bushland to burn, but not so hot and windy that the fire gets out of control. Secondly wind and atmosphere conditions need to be right to prevent smoke from lingering near the burned area and causing health problems, car accidents, flight delays and damage to grape crops.
Properly designed, maintained and understood hazard defences can be a key feature of a resilient community. Defences can be employed against bushfire (firebreaks, asset protection zones and other infrastructure that help firefighters protect property) coastal erosion and inundation (seawalls, artificial beaches, beach scraping or nourishment etc.) and flooding (levees, channels and floodgates).
These defences can be expensive pieces of infrastructure and they’re only a real option for properties that are already at risk. Hazard defences are also not 100% effective (or if they are, they are prohibitively expensive), though not everyone understands this. The main problem with hazard defences is that for them to be effective, they need to be maintained.
A study in NSW found serious deficiencies in the availability of information on the maintenance and condition of urban levees. It also mentioned confusion about levee ownership in other states. The maintenance and upgrade (if the levee is found to be deficient) of a levee can be an expensive exercise, particularly for asset owners with constrained budgets. For inland councils with limited rate bases, it may be difficult to politically justify levee maintenance during drought conditions.
Asset Protection Zones are a key platform of the NSW Planning for Bushfire Protection guidelines. Although their construction can form part of the development consent for a property there are no regulations requiring their maintenance. Where maintenance is difficult or expensive it is unlikely to occur. On the other hand appropriate design of asset protection zones can contribute to better maintenance.
The upgrading of hazard defences to cope with climate change, in order to provide the same level of protection in the future, is another high cost. For coastal flood defences in the Netherlands, of which there are 3,600 km, on top of an annual maintenance cost of €100,000/km upgrades could cost between €4 and €11 million per km.
Prevention of the impacts of extreme weather events is an activity largely outside of the responsibilities of the emergency services. Land-use planning and building controls can be very successful in reducing losses for new development, whilst property buy-back and land swaps can in a limited fashion remove risks to existing development. The impact of extreme weather on new development suggests that land use planning and building controls can be further tightened. Retrofitting is a policy response that has been largely unexplored by governments in Australia.
Modification of hazards can be applied in some limited circumstances, but it is unclear whether there can be significant improvements beyond what is currently practised. Hazard defences like levees and asset protection zones have been deployed in many parts of the country, but high costs can lead to poor maintenance reducing their effectiveness over time. The upgrade of defences to provide the same level of protection in a climate changed future is likely to be highly expensive.
- Governments should move away from using the 1% AEP standard for residential development in flood prone land and towards an approach based on the full range of risks (including property destruction and loss of life)
Utilising knowledge on disaster psychology governments should develop risk-to-life land use planning standards that account for likely human behaviour.
Governments should establish strong requirements for passive cooling and energy efficiency measures in the National Construction Code to address increasing heat wave risks.
The Federal Government should establish national sea level rise benchmarks for land use planning and develop model planning legislation for land swaps
Governments should publish clear, understandable and targeted guidelines to assist home-owners and builders to retrofit properties
Governments should investigate possible incentives including insurance to encourage home-owners, businesses and infrastructure owners to retrofit their properties
Governments need to develop better policies to ensure the maintenance of hazard defences, particularly where it has funded the construction.