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City of Sydney joins 100 Resilient Cities Campaign

Today the Rockefeller Foundation announced its latest group in the 100 Resilient Cities program. I was surprised to find Sydney as one of the cities who are now part of the program.

Except it’s not Sydney it’s the City of Sydney, one of the 40 or so local governments that make up the real Sydney metro area. Depending on how you want to measure resilience it’s probably one of the more resilient, if not the most resilient LGA in the Sydney Metro area. And with the possible exception of terrorism it would be on the lower side in terms of hazard profile too.

It contains 4% of the population and just 0.2% of the land area in the metropolitan region. It does however account for 28% of the Gross Regional Product, 25% of the jobs and 13% of the businesses of the Sydney metro area. However this economic contribution is heavily dependent on the rest of the metro area. Extreme interconnectedness is one of the things that reduces resilience and improved collaboration is one of the best ways to build it.

If City of Sydney is really serious about being a resilient city it will need to engage heavily with a much broader set of partners including the State Government and the other 40-odd local governments in the metro area. It will also need to ensure that the benefits it gains from being part of the Rockefeller collaboration are shared amongst these partners.

There is currently no city-wide emergency management or resilience forum in Sydney. Perhaps this grant will be the impetus that establishes one.

Highly fragmented local government is not unusual according to data from the OECD, with the average across 275 metro areas being 74 local governments (and that’s not even counting other levels or single purpose local governments). A number of other cities in the 100 resilient cities campaign have similar problems of fragmentation, and it’s not clear whether its something that’s even being considered.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the City of Sydney handles this issue moving forward with the program (and for that matter who gets the Chief Resilience Officer job). I’ll be staying tuned.



There are no Black Swans

One of the things that irritate me most about the Black Swan discussion is the number of people, workshops, media articles etc. that talk about trying to find them.*

A Black Swan is by definition something you did not expect to occur. It’s something you’re not prepared for (specifically), something that took you by surprise. Once you’ve forecast an event (or at least entertained its possibility) it ceases to be a Black Swan.

But are Black Swans really a complete surprise?

Someone, somewhere may have thought of the possibility of any event. When you think about it, all events are really Gray Swans or Gray Geese (I like the alliteration better). Indeed the events usually trotted out as Black Swans (9/11, the GFC, the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima disaster) had been entertained as possibilities by smart people working in relevant fields. Indeed proposals had been made for various actions that would have prevented or substantially mitigated these disasters. But the decision makers, the people who really count, did nothing. They either weren’t told about the risk or chose to do nothing.

However, just because these events can be foreseen doesn’t mean we need to be expending enormous effort in searching for them.

One of the problems with the ‘hunting black swans’ mentality is that there are a near infinite number of possible events, of which only a much smaller subset will actually occur in a reasonable planning horizon. Trying to address every Gray Goose you can think of will quickly get you nowhere. What’s needed are actions that will enable organisations and communities to adapt to any event – this is what much of the resilience discussion is getting at.

Yet some of the risks we face are worth addressing on their own, either because they’re very likely or easy to mitigate – the ‘low hanging fruit’ of the risk management world. We shouldn’t ignore these in our quest for resilience, yet these ‘easy’ risks are sometimes forgotten about in the resilience discussion.

The risk landscape is not static either. Some risks that were Gray Geese may become easier to mitigate or likely enough that they warrant individual attention. Others may diminish in likelihood or become harder to mitigate individually and so are better off treated as part of broader resilience processes.

That might be harder than running workshops around finding black swans, but it will be much more useful.

*I’m sure it probably irritates N.N. Taleb even more.

Federal Election Disaster Policies: The Minor Parties

In the lead up to this year’s federal election I’m going to be detailing and analysing the disaster and emergency management policies of the two major parties and the minor parties:

(links will appear above as I write each page)

I’ll continue updating these pages as more is announced in the lead up to the election. I’m going to focus on actual announcements and content of policy documents. Speculation on possible post-election policies is probably futile given the general non-partisan nature of disaster management. This post will be on the minor parties, which have some fairly hefty disaster management policies.

The Greens

Disaster Mitigation

The Greens propose a massive expansion of the existing Natural Disaster Resilience Program, increasing the federal contribution to over $300 million per year. They also seek to change the cost sharing rules of the current program to allow the Commonwealth to contribute a greater proportion of the funding for projects. In return for this they propose that the Commonwealth should, through a National Resilience Advisor and National Resilience Advisory Group, have a greater role in the decision making on projects. They propose that most of the funding for this program would be raised from a $2 levy on thermal coal exports, an interesting hypothecation. This could backfire – by linking natural disaster action (which generally enjoys wide support) with climate change action (which doesn’t). The policy would also seek to continue the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility with $10 million per annum for 5 years. NCCARF has undertaken a lot of disaster research, but it’s unclear how its continuation would integrated with the recently established Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.

Democratic Labor Party

Bushfire Mitigation

The DLP has a bushfire mitigation policy, with most of its elements focused at a state level, and seeks to establish a nationwide bushfire mitigation plan modeled on Western Australia. It would be funded by both State and Federal Governments. There doesn’t seem to be much more information on it.

Federal Election Disaster Policies: The ALP

In the lead up to this year’s federal election I’m going to be detailing and analysing the disaster and emergency management policies of the two major parties and the minor parties:

(links will appear above as I write each page)

I’ll continue updating these pages as more is announced in the lead up to the election. I’m going to focus on actual announcements and content of policy documents. Speculation on possible post-election policies is probably futile given the general non-partisan nature of disaster management. This post will be on:


Well quite a bit has changed since my last post, though with all the changes and announcements, significant new disaster policies aren’t one of them. Labor hasn’t rolled out many disaster policies in advance of the election or during the campaign to date. There are some new Government initiatives which I outlined in my budget coverage, but these aren’t exactly election policies. Here’s the election announcements:

Weather Forecasting

The ALP have announced $58.5 million to improving the Bureau of Meteorology’s extreme weather response. This funding will go towards the recruitment of additional severe weather meteorologists and hydrologists, which will go some way towards improving the Bureau’s response to disasters and give it better surge capacity (something that has been criticised in recent inquiries). I imagine that these would be based in the BoM’s regional offices where are large amount of the severe weather response takes place, though there’s no clue as to what the breakdown of these positions across the states and territories (it may be a decision for the BoM itself). The funding will also establish a National Centre for Extreme Weather to be based in the Bureau’s head office in Melbourne. The NCEW will develop state of the art flood and storm surge modelling and conduct research on severe weather forecasting and warning dissemination.

Federal Election Disaster Policies: The Coalition

In the lead up to this year’s federal election I’m going to be detailing and analysing the disaster and emergency management policies of the two major parties and the minor parties:

(links will appear above as I write each page)

I’ll continue updating these pages as more is announced in the lead up to the election. I’m going to focus on actual announcements and content of policy documents. Speculation on possible post-election policies is probably futile given the general non-partisan nature of disaster management. This post will be on the minor parties, which have some fairly hefty disaster management policies.

The Coalition

The Coalition’s disaster policies are a loose collection across a broad set of areas (and in that way not terribly different from the other parties). Where a source isn’t quoted the policy has been taken from the “Real solutions” document recently released. Some of these policies may be a bit outdated as they refer to 2010 election documents.


Expand the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine – As part of a focus on northern Australia the coalition has committed to a expanding the research institute for tropical diseases located at James Cook University. The work of this institute would include biosecurity, the development of vaccines and other therapies and training. A growing northern population is leading to more people being exposed to tropical diseases and climate change could lead to previously rare diseases becoming more frequent and moving further south. These factors suggest a greater focus on tropical diseases is not a bad thing (but don’t tell Tony Abbott this – he might pull the pin on the idea if he thinks it’s got something to do with climate change). Though this policy was originally announced at the 2010 election it has been updated with a $42 million commitment broken down into some sub-areas.

Disaster Response

National Search Dog Framework – Last year the Coalition announced plans to create a National Search Dog Framework, which would develop formalised deployment arrangements and nationally consistent standards and training for search dog teams across the government and non-government sector. It’s not exactly clear where this thought bubble has come from, but it’s a rather specific one. I can’t find much information about ownership of search dogs in Australia, especially the split between the government and non-government sectors or how often the non-government sector is used in emergency operations. Nor do there appear to be specific recommendations in recent inquiries relating to SAR canines.

The press release does make allusions to it but a better action would be some sort of national framework to improve coordination of all specialist resources, both within and across jurisdictions. Again it’s unclear whether there is actually a formal need or if existing coordination frameworks under national and jurisdictional emergency plans are sufficient.

Early fire detection system – In 2010 the Coalition committed $10 million towards an early bushfire detection system. It refers to systems available in Europe and the US but gives no further information so its difficult to determine what it is and how it would enhance existing fire detection capabilities (which include aircraft, fire towers and the Sentinel satellite system). Ironically, despite referring to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, none of the commission’s recommendations actually refer to a fire detection system (although there’s plenty on information sharing and warnings). The press release also says the Coalition would task the Attorney-General’s Department to ensure statistical and mapping data held by federal government agencies is distributed to state and local governments to enhance bushfire preparedness. If the Coalition is still committed to this policy, perhaps it could seek to do this through the soon to be established National Insurance Affordability Council

Biosecurity flying squad – In 2010 the Coalition committed $15 million to the establishment of a special bio-security response agency to provide urgent additional resources to a bio-security emergency. The agency would also have an audit and compliance function for quarantine facilities and processes suggesting that it would be established outside of AQIS and possibly even outside of DAFF. Bio-security has been the subject of a number of recent disaster inquiries in Australia including the only federal Royal Commission on disasters in the last 10 years. Improving response capacity and timeliness has been the subject of numerous recommendations from these inquiries.


AUSCORPS – In 2010 the Coalition proposed the establishment of AUSCORPS a scheme to encourage volunteering by university students. The scheme would provide a discount of up to $2000 a year on up to 1000 student’s HECS payments. It’s unclear that this would have a significant impact, it could just advantage existing volunteers without encouraging new people into the sector. There’s also somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 emergency volunteers in Australia (depending on how you count) so even if all 1000 places were in the emergency services, and they were all new entrants, there would be less than a 1% increase in total volunteer numbers.

Federal Relations

The Coalition will establish a new Standing Council on Law, Crime and Community Safety probably to replace existing the existing Standing Council on Police and Emergency Management and Standing Council on Law and Justice. This continues a trend started in the previous round of COAG reforms towards a smaller number of committees (prior to which there was a dedicated emergency management forum). It’s unclear whether this would extend to senior officers groups (like the National Emergency Management Committee and its sub-committees). Less time for emergency management on the COAG agenda could, depending on your opinion of federalism, delay crucial national emergency management reforms or reduce federal meddling in the state’s emergency management programs.

Disaster Mitigation

One action that has popped up in a variety of coalition policy documents is the building new dams. There is an inevitable tension between using dams for water supply, hydro-power and flood mitigation – e.g. to mitigate floods you want them empty and to supply water you want them full. Presumably the coalition isn’t proposing to try and achieve this with all dams it might construct, but would seek different aims for different areas.

Unfortunately most of the major inland rivers and many of the coastal ones in Australia already have dams, which have a variety of flood mitigation benefits. This would limit the flood mitigation benefit that could be gained from dam construction. Unless some of this activity is also directed at building flood detention basins in urban areas (which are essentially small dams and, in NSW at least, are regulated like them) there’s unlikely to be as much mitigation benefit. Funding for the construction of detention basins (which cost at least an order of magnitude less than a large dam) would also be able to spread further across more projects.


Coalition policy also refers to improved counter-terrorism and domestic security including a new defence white paper (past white papers have discussed the disaster response role of the ADF) but there’s little in the way of specifics.


The Coalition would spend $100 million on subsidising the expansion of mobile telecommunications in rural and regional areas with a focus on using at least some of the funding on areas prone to natural disasters.

NSW Planning White Paper Released

Today the NSW Government released its planning white paper. Reforming the planning system was one of the election policies of the O’Farrell Government. I feel that a lot of the discussion about ‘resilience’ are thinly veiled distractions from what we know works best – not building stuff in harm’s way.

I’ll be leafing through it and posting my thoughts (and perhaps making a submission), but at 214 pages it’s going to take me a while.

The closing date for submissions is the 28th of June, so if you’re thinking about making one get cracking. There’s a variety of other consultative mechanisms including a series of discussion forums.

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 5

Further submissions have come in in the past week or so and I move onto the fifth instalment in my series on the extreme weather trends and emergency preparedness senate inquiry. See part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. This term of reference relates to federalism and emergency management:

(e) the current roles and effectiveness of the division of responsibilities between different levels of government (federal, state and local) to manage extreme weather events;

The division of emergency management responsibilities is a product of Australia’s history of federalism. I’m going to try and restrict this discussion to just responsibilities and ignore the role money has to play in federalism and emergency management through vertical fiscal imbalance and horizontal fiscal inequity.


Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry: Part 3

In the previous two posts I have examined current trends and future projections of climate change impacts on natural hazards, the estimated costs of extreme weather and potential insurance impacts. In this instalment I move onto the preparedness terms of reference:

(c) an assessment of the preparedness of key sectors for extreme weather events, including major infrastructure (electricity, water, transport, telecommunications), health, construction and property, and agriculture and forestry;


L’Aquila Earthquake Verdict

L'Aquila 2010-by-RaBoe-078On the 6th of April 2009, a devastating earthquake struck the medieval Italian city of L’Aquila. In the town and others nearby 309 people were killed, more than 1,500 people injured, 20,000 buildings destroyed and 65,000 people left homeless.

In the wake of the earthquake 6 Italian scientists and one government official, members of the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks, were charged with manslaughter on the basis that they provided misleading and confusing information. Information that, prosecutors alleged, directly led to people deciding to remain in their homes after a minor earthquake which happened just hours before the fatal shock hit.

Just under three weeks ago the magistrate found all seven guilty prompting massive criticism from scientists worldwide.