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Big Cost Needs a Big Risk Assessment

Between 2000 and 2009 natural disasters cost the federal government about $1.5 billion. Then in the following 3 years they cost $7.7 billion, $1.6 billion and $2.1 billion respectively. That’s right, in each of the last 3 years disasters have cost more than in the previous ten years combined.

This huge increase has not gone unnoticed, the federal government will initiate a Productivity Commission inquiry into national disaster funding arrangements later this year.

The inquiry will undoubtedly consider where governments are spending on disasters, but will it look at where that money is coming from?

Although state and local governments do insure some of their assets the predominant approach to funding disaster losses in Australia has been to rely on the federal government’s ability to borrow money at rock-bottom rates. This is clearly not sustainable in the long term.

There are a range of ways governments can deal with disaster costs and their variability, from public disaster funds to catastrophe linked securities. These methods can also make the cost of disasters something that’s up-front and thus give governments strong incentive to invest in mitigation.

Up-front spending requires knowledge of how much the government will need to pay in the long term. All existing estimates for annual disaster losses in Australia are based on statistics of past events. Leaving aside the future influence of climate change and demographic growth these figures are heavily flawed. Simple approaches based on historical statistics just don’t work. Disaster losses follow a power law and statistical predictions will always underestimate the probabilities of large losses.

Fortunately there is another way – a comprehensive, bottom-up National Disaster Risk Assessment.

This process would bring together the massive amounts of existing data and modelling expertise on disaster risk in Australia, identify and address gaps and refine tools to improve risk assessment. The results would enable the estimation of not only the annual costs of disasters, but also the cost of the worst disaster seasons.

Risk Assessment is more than just modelling. To get the best outcomes requires collaboration among stakeholders to share knowledge, experience and ideas for reducing disaster risk. Governments, NGOs, academia, businesses and communities all have unique abilities to reduce disaster risks and the risk modelling activities should meet their needs.

It’s in actually contributing to risk reduction that a National Disaster Risk Assessment could really see gains. Since the 2002 COAG inquiry into Natural Disasters in Australia there have been more than 160 government inquiries into disasters, producing a wish-list of close to 4000 recommendations. Though the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience has brought together key strategic priorities, the level of its implementation is unclear.

Coming out of the twin strands of data-driven risk modelling and stakeholder-driven risk assessment a more focussed approach to resilience could be taken: A 3-year National Plan with a small number of concrete, achievable priorities and clear deadlines for implementation. As these priorities are completed new ones can be added through the risk assessment process, ensuring that the National Disaster Risk Assessment is an ongoing project rather than something done once and then shelved.

A National Disaster Risk Assessment would need a custodian to ensure this continuity and ensure national risk assessment becomes a long-term activity of government. The Productivity Commission, with its modelling and consultative expertise and long history of influence of national policy could be one potential option. Or perhaps the creation of a new agency, say a National Disaster Risk Commission, could better meet this task.

Regardless, making decisions about funding future disaster losses without even really knowing what they could be is a risky game.

Natural Disasters vs. Man-made Disasters – A Better Taxonomy?

We’re always bombarded with news about natural disasters, acts of god and stories of the wrath of mother nature. It’s a recurring meme in the public discussion about disasters and even amongst disaster management experts.

But we know that so called “natural disasters” aren’t really natural – disasters are a social phenomenon – they need something to impact on before . Even talking about natural and anthropogenic hazards doesn’t really work very well. Human practices around land-clearing and vegetation management have a significant influence on floods and bushfires. Landslides that impact on human development are very often due to modifications made to slopes. And before we started building fragile structures earthquakes would have been a curiosity like solar eclipses. Then there’s climate change – we’re beginning to drive change in the natural processes that govern many hazards.

Is there a better way for talking about hazards and disasters that goes beyond this false dichotomy?

One concept that I’ve been introduced to recently is the idea of policy domains and policy communities. A policy community is the group of all the participants in the policy making and implementation process for a particular subject.  Some players are only concerned with one policy area (such as engineering seismologists) whilst others are concerned with many policy areas (such as meteorologists or disaster recovery experts).

To see how this concept could be used in categorising hazards I used Gephi to build a map of various hazards and how their policy communities are connected. For example blizzards and heatwaves are connected because they both relate to meteorology and climate – there’s overlap in their policy community. An engineer may work in both the earthquake policy community, the dam failure policy community and the structural collapse policy community and so on. This is a very subjective process, without data on how experts in various fields are connected (using say LinkedIn), this is really just built on what I think. But let’s see if we can pull some groups of hazards out of this map:


Click for a larger version.

Based on the connections between the different policy communities I’ve pulled out three separate broad policy domains:

Settlements – this comprises most of the traditional natural hazards policy domain, but adds in a few other engineering related hazards such as structural collapse (which has huge overlaps with policy domains like earthquake) and dam failure (which could almost be considered a sub-speciality of the flood policy domain). The drivers and mitigation options for these hazards relate to where and how we build our houses, neighbourhoods and cities.

Society – this comprises human health, human security and agricultural hazards. This is a pretty diverse set of hazards (as evidenced by their sparse connections) but they mostly relate to people and societies. It could be broken up a bit further, but for simplicity I’ve grouped them.

Economy – this group has industrial/technological accidents, transport accidents and utilities failures, there’s pretty big overlap with terrorism (which I placed in the societal group) and a number of the Settlements policy domains. Most of these hazards relate to economic activity in the modern age and comprise most of the traditional anthropogenic hazards policy domain. I think that labelling this group Economy is instructive as it reminds us that the so-called ‘human-caused’ disasters aren’t caused by people per se, but the productive activities we do and the materials and technologies used in them. It’s this group of hazards that have evolved the fastest and continue to evolve rapidly.

So let’s forget natural hazards and anthropogenic hazards – how about Settlement hazards, Societal hazards and Economic hazards?

Risky Links: Global Disaster Reports

In all my courses here in Pavia we’ve been getting into the alphabet soup of international disaster management. One thing that’s got me a little confused are all the international reports on disasters. So I’ve compiled a list of all the regular reports brought out in the international space on disasters and data and trends in their impact and response. One thing about most of these reports (particularly for a data geek like me) is that they’re underpinned by massive amounts of data on disasters, their impact and response – including time series.

Global Assessment of Risk – This report is published by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) every two years.

World Disasters Report – Published annually by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Cresent Societies (IFRC).

World Risk Report – Published annually by the Institute for Environment and Human Security at the United Nations University (UNU-EHS)

Global Risks – Published annually by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Annual Disaster Statistical Review – Published by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), this data in this annual report is used in many other international reporting.

Sigma Natural Catastrophes and Man-Made Disasters – Swiss Re publishes this report annually as a special issue of it’s Sigma magazine.

Global Humanitarian Assistance Report – Published annually by Development Initiatives.

Humanitarian Accountability Report – Published annually by the Humanitarian Accountability Project

A Review of Natural Disasters – Published annually by the Brookings Institute

Etymology of Disasters

One of my favourite pastimes is getting hung up over terminology used in disaster management – different jargon means different things in different places. This can be problematic. For example I recall one instance where some relative newcomers to emergency management in Australia were promoting the establishment of Local Resilience Forums in Australia. Thing is that Australia already has them – for example in NSW they’re called Local Emergency Management Committees and in Queensland Local Disaster Management Groups. Even simple words like risk and resilience can mean different things to different professionals – and that’s without even taking into account community understanding of various words.

I thought it might be interesting to look at where some of the common words we use come from so I did some poking around on an online etymology dictionary and here’s what I found:

accident Used in English from the late 1300s it is from 1100s old French from the Latin accidentem/accidere “to happen or fall out” from ad– and cadere “fall”.
alarm First in use from early 1300s from old French alarme, from the Italian all’arme “to arms!”
alert Used since the 1590s from the French alerte from the Italian all’erta “to the height” from erta “lookout, high tower” past participle of ergere “raise up” from the Latin erigere “raise”.
catastrophe Although in use in English since the 1530s it originally meant a “reversal of what is expected” acquiring its present meaning around 1748. The word is from the Latin catastropha from the Greek katastrophe, from katastrephein literally meaning a down-turn.
command In use since around 1400 from old French comand/comander from the vulgar Latin commandare from Latin commendare “to recommend, entrust to”
control The present use as “to direct or dominate” is from the mid 1400s. From early 1300s “to check or regulate” from the Anglo-French contreroller “exert authority” from the medieval Latin contrarotulus “a counter or register” from Latin contra– (meaning against) and rotulus (meaning wheel).
coordination Circa 1600 meaning “orderly combination” from the French coordination from late Latin coordinationem from Latin coordinare “to arrange or set in order” from com– (meaning “together”) and ordinatio “arrangement” from ordo “order”. Present meaning of “harmonious action” used since 1855.
disaster From the 1590s derived from middle French désastre which is from the Italian disastro meaning “ill-starred”.
emergency First used around the 1630s it is derived from the Latin emergens, present participle of emergere meaning “to rise up or bring forth”.
hazard First used around 1300 (though the modern meaning only evolved around the 1540s) from the 12th century old French hazard which may be from the Spanish azar “an unfortunate card or throw at dice”. The Spanish word is possibly from the Arabic words az-zahr “the die” or yasara “he played dice”.
mitigation From mid 1300s from the Latin mitigationem/mitigare “soften, make tender” from mitis “gentle, soft” and agere “do or make”.
peril First used in English around 1200 it comes from the 10th century French word peril from the Latin periculum meaning “an attempt, trial, experiment; risk, danger” which comes from the Greek peria “trial, attempt, experience”
rescue Used since around 1300 from the old French rescorre ”protect or keep safe” from re– and escourre “to cast off” which is from the Latin excutere “to shake off”.
resilience Used since the 1620s it’s from the Latin resiliens/resilire meaning “to rebound/recoil” which is a combination or re– and salire “to jump/leap” (and interestingly where the word salient comes from).
risk First recorded in English in 1728 it entered into usage in the 1660s from the French word risque which itself comes from the Italian risco (which is now rischio) from riscare meaning “run into danger”.
vulnerability Vulnerable was first used around 1600 from the late Latin vulnerabilis which means “wounding”.
warning Since the late 1300s from old French monition from Latin monitionem “warning or admonition” from monere “to warn”.


Tokyo Olympics – Will they be prepared?

The 2020 Olympics has been announced for Tokyo, one of the most earthquake prone megacities on the planet. The 2011 Sendai quake has also upped the chances of a big quake in the Tokyo area.

Despite extensive disaster preparedness for earthquakes Tokyo still has many vulnerabilities, and the clean-up of the Fukushima disaster will still be ongoing as the games get underway.

Plenty of Olympics have been held in disaster prone cities: Beijing, Athens, Los Angeles, Montreal, Mexico City and Rome all have high earthquake hazards, but fortunately a major natural disaster has not been visited on an Olympic Games. The 1908 games were originally going to be held in Rome, but were moved to London after the 1906 eruption of Mt Vesuvius led to financial pressures on the Italian Government. The worst olympics disaster in history was the terrorist attack on the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, and with billion dollar security budgets terrorism has been foremost in the minds of games’ organisers in recent years.

Although risk management has become a new priority for the IOC, assessment of disaster and emergency preparedness, particularly for natural disasters appears to be brief.

With the influx of athletes, officials and visitors Japan will need to put in place special measures to ensure that they are as prepared as the rest of the population, upgrade emergency response units and ensure that construction for the games is specially hardened – and that’s just for starters. A disaster ready games will be expensive and for a nation already faced with the recovery bill of the 2011 quake and tsunami and the clean-up of Fukushima it will be difficult for it to face up to the challenge. But the costs of not being prepared can be far greater.


Update on the Climate Change and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry

Well it’s been two months since I posted my last update and the Climate Change and Emergency Preparedness Inquiry is in full swing. As I suspected the reporting date has been extended to the 26th of June (and even that date is still rather ambitious). There are now 338 submissions (most of the new ones being from individuals) and hearings have been held in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth (the transcripts are available online). Hearings in Sydney and Canberra are scheduled for the next couple of days. I have only skimmed through the content of the hearings and there’s some interesting reading, but I’ll leave it to the inquiry to sum them up in its report.


Raising Warragamba Dam could lead to a greater catastrophe

This post originally appeared in New Matilda under the title “Floodwaters Could Rise In Sydney”

Queensland and NSW are again recovering from record breaking floods and again many are questioning the state of flood mitigation in Australia. While attention remains on flood affected parts of Queensland attention is starting to turn to what could be the worst flood risk in the country: the Hawkesbury-Nepean River in Western Sydney.


Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry: Part 6

In this final instalment of my series on the Recent trends in and preparedness for extreme weather events Inquiry I’ll address the remaining terms of reference in a roundabout way. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 here. The remaining terms deal with Australia’s overall response to climate change adaptation and national coordination of risk management. I want to address the impact of climate change on severe weather events being far from the only climate impact relevant to emergency management; climate change adaptation being far from the only emerging challenge in emergency management; and the interconnectedness of many current and emerging threats for Australia and the world.

(f) progress in developing effective national coordination of climate change response and risk management, including legislative and regulatory reform, standards and codes, taxation arrangements and economic instruments;

(g) any gaps in Australia’s Climate Change Adaptation Framework and the steps required for effective national coordination of climate change response and risk management; and

(h) any related matter.


Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry: Part 4

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;


Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry: Part 2

As a new report shows greenhouse gas emissions are putting the globe on a track for 4-6ºC of warming by the end of the century I’ll continue my series on the Senate Recent trends in and preparedness for extreme weather events Inquiry. In the last instalment I looked at current and historical trends in extreme weather and attribution of them to climate change. In this post I look forward to the next ToR:

(b) based on global warming scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation of 1 to 5 degrees by 2070:

(i) projections on the frequency of extreme weather events, including but not limited to drought, bushfires, heatwaves, floods and storm surges,

(ii) the costs of extreme weather events and impacts on natural ecosystems, social and economic infrastructure and human health, and

(iii) the availability and affordability of private insurance, impacts on availability and affordability under different global warming scenarios, and regional social and economic impacts; (more…)