Triple whammy of pandemic, flood and war challenge planners

There are various estimates of the total costs of disasters. The 2020 Royal Commission into National Disasters cited studies showing the direct and indirect disaster costs in Australia are now averaging $ 18.2 billion a year. More alarmingly it predicted these costs would rise to $ 39 billion a year by 2050, “even without accounting for climate change.”

The report was chaired by former air force and defense chief Mark Binskin, and noted 94 per cent of Australia’s normalized insurance costs derived from extreme weather events.

Binskin cited an analysis from Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Center examining Australia’s history of “compound disasters”.

The 2020 study found that compounding disasters such as fires, floods, pandemics, wars and economic shocks were, in fact, the norm, with compound disasters occurring in 36 years of the 52-year period considered from 1967 to 2019.

The study noted “the occurrence of compound disasters at the time of societal stressors would further amplify impacts and result in complex emergency management challenges. Consideration of the coincidence of other societal stressors at the time of compound disasters has not received attention before the current COVID-19 pandemic. ”

This led Binskin to conclude it was no longer suitable to assess disaster risk at an individual hazard level, and that risk needed to take account of other possible natural hazards and broader societal pressures that affect resilience.

The challenge this week of COVID-positive housing evacuees in community centers was a practical reminder of what Binskin was pointing at.

Ironically, the preoccupation with COVID-19 meant Binskin’s report got little public or policy attention. This week’s triple whammy of a global pandemic, record flood levels and a major regional war was tragic proof about the need to consider resilience and emergency preparation in a far more strategic framework.

Blunt land use message

Central to this resilience is (finally) getting serious about land use planning. The co-ordinator general of the newly formed National Recovery and Resilience Agency and former NT chief minister Shane Stone was characteristically blunt about the substantive issue.

“Australians need to have an honest conversation about where and how people build homes. The taxpayer and the ratepayer cannot continue to pick up the bill for these huge, catastrophic damage events, ”Stone told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Binskin cited a sophisticated 2019 study by the XDI Cross Dependency Initiative that looked at the impact of climate change on the Australian built environment. The XDI group is led by Rohan Hamden, who began his career as a firefighter but went on to become director of the Climate Adaptation Program for South Australia.

The study concluded Australia already had a significant number of homes and facilities with a high exposure risk, with 383,300 addresses in 2020 which would be classified as high-risk properties, based on a metric used by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency.

XDI projected this would increase to 735,654 in 2100 for existing development only. This figure did not account for new development occurring in high hazard areas, or continued use of inadequate building standards, which it said unabated will substantially increase this number.

Applying a long-term climate change model, XDI concluded the national Total Technical Insurance Premium (TTIP), a measure of the total annual cost of damage and assumes all hazards are insured, is projected to increase by 55 per cent between 2020 and 2100.

High risk properties

In the same time period, the number of “high risk properties” (HRP) is projected to increase by 92 per cent.

XDI noted riverine flooding was a major driver of both TTIP and HRP, finding that while flooding affected a smaller number of properties it generally caused more severe financial impacts.

Between 2020 and 2100, the TTIP from flooding is projected to increase by 29 per cent. The study suggests one in five local government areas will see TTIP double due to flood.

The study listed the regions most at risk, with the Gold Coast, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast topping the list of areas with the highest “all risks” TTIP in the country.

Also in the top 10 were Morton Bay and the Fraser coast in Queensland and the Central Coast and Tweed regions of NSW. All tragically featured in this week’s flooding events.

The XDI report highlighted the high concentration of risk from flooding and called for the establishment of “unambiguous legal requirements for purchasers, investors and tenants of built property and infrastructure to be advised of the full range of extreme weather and climate change risks that may affect the property over its full lifetime ”.

Binskin also noted the push for a common star rating system to inform buyers. Concerned this would devalue properties, the Queensland government pushed back on any form of public rating system, arguing people could find the data on websites.

Binskin bluntly stated: “The answer is simple: many people do not.”

The royal commission concluded the obvious: “Land-use planning decisions and exposure to risk are inextricably linked.”

Existing, or ‘legacy’, risk needs to be identified and communicated, and proportionate action taken to reduce risk. Clear risk information supports individuals, communities, and governments to take informed action to manage those risks.

“The likelihood of increases in the severity and frequency of natural hazards should be taken into account in land-use planning and building decisions. These decisions should be informed by the best available data on current and future risk. ”

Meanwhile the NSW government plans to nearly double the number of people who live on the Hawkesbury and Nepean flood plains over the next 30 years from 70,000 to 130,000.

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