As Australians become increasingly anxious about the threat of
natural disaster, building infrastructure that is better able to
cope with these traumatic events must be a priority as we repair
the damage caused over this last year and move on to deliver in
excess of $700 billion of infrastructure across
Floods in Queensland and Victoria, fires in Western Australia,
and earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan have raised the
consciousness and sensitivity of Australians to these extraordinary
The MWHCritical infrastructure Report 2011,
release in April, found that 85 per cent of Australians believe we
are experiencing changes to our climate (whether human-induced or
otherwise remains part of community debate) and the majority link
these changes to the frequency and severity of disaster events.
Seven in 10 people expect that we will experience more natural
disasters over the next 20 years and nearly half actively
support increased government action to prepare and protect us from
Not surprisingly, many lack confidence in our critical
infrastructure to respond and recover from events. Just 39 per cent
believe it is strong enough to withstand a large bushfire, 38 per
cent a drought, 32 per cent a flood, 31 per cent a cyclone, 14 per
cent an earthquake, and 12 per cent a tsunami.
While there is strong support for government to spend more to
make our infrastructure better able to cope with natural disasters,
there are mixed views as to how that money should be spent.
One in four (24 per cent) favour the resistance approach
– investing in infrastructure that can withstand natural
disasters unharmed. In contrast, another third (31 per cent) prefer
the resilience approach, favouring a lower level of spending that
allows critical infrastructure to be quickly restored in the wake
of a disaster.
The reality is that overwhelming disaster events are inevitable,
and property and infrastructure cannot be
The only viable solution is to prepare our cities, towns and
communities through a sensible combination of resistance,
mitigation and adaptation strategies. Planning measures can see us
avoid construction in flood plains, but other social and political
imperatives compete with that simple paradigm and result in
community exposures. Where we insist on placing ourselves in these
situations we need to adapt our construction techniques to
Many on the Brisbane River systems have learnt that masonry
ground level walls will recover more quickly (cheaply) than sheeted
walls; shutters on windows do not shatter due to heat from
bushfires and prevent entry of cinders and sparks to start new
fires from within the house.
As we have learnt from the New Zealand earthquakes where the
centralised water system brought whole communities to their knees,
designing decentralised systems for essential services such as
electricity, water and waste water is paramount as it will enable
communities to recover more quickly. And while decentralised
systems are not without complications, there is broad recognition
of the need to reduce the risk of total breakdown.
Australians are supportive of greater investment by governments
and are willing to contribute to the cost of investing in
infrastructure to insure against disruption.
As always, though, further testing of the exact size of that
appetite is required. The bottom line is that building or
rebuilding critical infrastructure that will better withstand and
recover from the trauma of a natural disaster is a priority by any
We will be helped by our custom of review of events to get
"lessons learned" to be smarter the next time around.
Reports such as the very recent Queensland Floods Commission of
Inquiry Interim Report are an opportunity to reflect and
improve, and must necessarily remain apolitical to ensure that
their value is not obscured by finger-pointing and point
Fortunately, as we build in increasing intelligence into
planning and construction, we can expect a better recovery in
future. But all stakeholders, including government, engineers,
investors and project managers, must remain vigilant and, wherever
possible, factor in new design standards that will allow for more
extreme events, occurring more frequently, than we are seeing
This opinion piece appeared in the Australian
Financial Review on 09 September 2011.
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