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My Post on the EM Knowledge Hub Blog

My Post on the EM Knowledge Hub Blog

I’ve written a post for the EM Knowledge Hub Blog on Disaster Risk Financing for governments. Check it out.

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 Bites: Fukushima, is fear the real risk?

VOA Herman - April 13 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant-03Two new international and independent reports have been released on the health impacts of the Fukushima nuclear accident. They’ve found that there have been few health impacts on the workers in the plant and emergency responders. More importantly they’ve found that there are unlikely to be any attributable long term health impacts on the general population. As the Sydney Morning Herald article says: “This “perfect storm” hit a nuclear plant built to a 50-year-old design and no one died.”

Nevertheless, there’s been significant fallout (pun intended) in terms of the nuclear power industry in Japan and abroad. Japan has struggled to generate electricity over the last two years and public opinion on nuclear power has reached new lows. The psychological impacts cannot also be discounted for millions in the area and further afield. The report even found that many deaths were associated with the stress of the evacuation. In areas that weren’t highly exposed to radiation people may have been better off staying.

So here’s my question: is the fear of a nuclear accident a bigger risk than the risk of an accident itself?

Risky Bites: Radios and Airport Ground Crew

Safe Skies 2011 - ground crew
Welcome to Risky Bites – a new series on the blog that will take a short form and seek reader input.

Anyone who regularly flies in Australia will often get the announcement from cabin crew to “… as we will be refueling, please switch off your mobile phone whilst on the tarmac..”. We know that the risk of a mobile phone causing an explosion is vanishingly small, if it’s even possible. But I always see ground crew using radios, which makes me wonder:

Are the radios that are used by airport ground crew intrinsically safe?

If you know, please chime in in the comments.

Global warming halted? A load of hot air.

Climate change is a big topic in disaster management. I have earlier outlined that claims of a big impact on severe weather by climate change (at least presently) are largely overblown. As a broader risk management issue climate change is a big one.

If left unchecked, climate change could have some huge, civilisation altering, consequences over the next couple of hundred years. This is a big risk for humankind and possibly the largest over a timescale of 100-300 years.

Which is why it really gets my goat to hear claims that the warming has stopped.


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.