Australia: Case of disaster resistance v disaster resilience

Last Updated: 12 September 2011
Article by Peter Williams

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 Australia. 

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 events. 

The MWH Critical 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 natural disasters.

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 made invulnerable.

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 suit.

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 measure.

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 scoring.

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 today.

This opinion piece appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 09 September 2011. 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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