Facing the future of disaster resilience

By Dan Metcalfe, Director CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, Jane Coram, Director CSIRO Land and WaterNovember 18th, 2021

Extreme events continue to challenge Australians under a changing climate. We explore the role of science in helping build our resilience as we prepare for future disasters and improve our response and recovery.

We Australians are well accustomed to living with a wide range of weather conditions. Our climate and geography leave us exposed to all sorts of natural events – from flood and fire to drought and damaging winds. When such events occur, the human, environmental and economic impacts are often significant.

Over the coming years, climate projections suggest changes in the frequency, intensity, duration and distribution of extreme weather events, with implications for people and the environment. It’s also likely that we will experience an increasing number of consecutive or concurrent events, compounding the impacts and making recovery more difficult.

What does our climate have in store for 2021/22?

According to AFAC, the National Council for Fire and Emergency Services, the bushfire outlook for spring 2021 brings mixed news about the season ahead. Below-normal fire potential is predicted across the ACT, New South Wales and Victoria – mainly as a result of vegetation recovering from previous fire seasons. But south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales are both facing above-normal fire potential, driven by grass and crop growth in these areas, while Western Australia faces above-normal fire potential driven by grass growth and dry conditions.

Additionally, the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) has moved to a La Niña watch, saying there is a 70% chance of the rain-bearing climate driver returning this spring. If that does occur, it will mean wetter-than-average conditions for eastern Australia and the potential for flooding in catchments that are already wet. The flooding rains have already started in parts of south-eastern Australia.

A potential La Niña event for Australia this spring could mean wetter-than-average conditions for eastern Australia.

It’s increasingly obvious that Australia must change the way it deals with natural disasters. Rather than waiting to respond to individual events, we must increase our focus on risk mitigation, preparation for events, and strengthening our overall resilience.

This shift in emphasis is key to Australian communities preparing for and recovering from natural disasters, and it will require investment and innovation throughout the entire cycle of climate and disaster resilience. We need to plan well and be prepared for natural disasters; respond effectively when they do occur; recover quickly and effectively; and learn from our experiences, building back better (or differently) to reduce the impact of future events.

Each of us can contribute to this effort – from local, state and federal governments right through to industries and communities – but in order to make the best possible decisions, they should be informed by evidence-based, reliable research. That’s where CSIRO can play an essential role.

As the national science agency, CSIRO has been a leading provider of natural disaster research for 70 years. We have an established track record of working collaboratively with a diverse range of stakeholders that leaves us well placed to facilitate a broad and inclusive conversation on disaster resilience in Australia, and deliver trusted advice and research that will lead to on-the-ground impacts.

Australian communities must shift from responding to individual natural disaster events to risk mitigation, preparation and resilience. This shift will require investment and innovation throughout the entire cycle of climate and disaster resilience (pictured).

Our commitment to improving response and recovery efforts

We know that better anticipating, preparing for and responding to a changing climate and more extreme weather events will protect Australian lives and livelihoods. Every dollar government invests in climate adaptation or disaster risk reduction saves between $2 and $11 in recovery.

While the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have absorbed most of our energy and attention over the past eighteen months, the 2019/2020 bushfires still loom large in our collective memory – and the impacts of those fires are still being felt across affected communities.

Following that devastating fire season – which led to insurance losses of more than $2.3 billion – CSIRO drew together a multidisciplinary team of experts to work closely with national disaster recovery agencies and other local, state and federal authorities. The result? A Climate and Disaster Resilience Report, delivered to the Prime Minister in June 2020.

This provided the latest scientific information to help us prepare for future natural disasters and practical guidance to improve our response and recovery efforts. It also informed $209 million worth of Australian Government commitments, supporting communities and businesses to better anticipate, manage and adapt to the risks brought by a changing climate. This included establishing the Australian Climate Service (ACS). The service is a partnership of world leading science, information and expertise from the Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia, CSIRO and Australian Bureau of Statistics. It brings the Commonwealth’s extensive climate and natural hazard information into a single national view.

Our work to improve our understanding of how climate change influences natural disaster events is ongoing.

Not only are we identifying how periods of drought, sea level rise, extreme heat, floods and tropical cyclones will change as our climate becomes warmer and drier; we also continue to help Australia build a more resilient future in the face of complex compounding natural events that can lead to disaster.

Using a collaborative approach, CSIRO is working to develop actionable, Australia-specific solutions that take into account our unique geography, climate, cultural heritage, infrastructure, economy and environment.

What we can learn about resilience from COVID-19?

A stronger, safer Australia requires input from all of us. What can we learn about building resilience from the community response to COVID-19?

We know that the lives and livelihoods of many Australians have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic capacity of organisations and the emotional capacity of individuals to prepare for and recover from further challenges is likely to be compromised this year.

But the pandemic has also shown that within our communities there is an extraordinary willingness to help each other out. That sense of connection at the local neighbourhood level holds enormous potential for building resilience.

A stronger, safer Australia requires input from all of us. At CSIRO, we are committed to working together to do our best – providing the evidence that underpins informed decision making, the guidance and support to implement change, and the tools to build more resilient communities in the years ahead.

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