Time to deal with disaster from the front

Setting sun shines on a truck that is picking up post-disaster debris.
The focus of disaster management policy in Australia needs to shift from relief to resilience, says Professor Jim McGowan.

A once-in-a-generation opportunity to shift the focus of disaster management policy in Australia must be seized, says adjunct professor at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations, Jim McGowan AM.

In a Griffith University submission to the Productivity Commission’s public inquiry into Natural Disaster Funding Arrangements, Professor McGowan has called for a move away from the narrow focus of recovery that traditionally follows in the wake of natural disasters.

“Resilience needs to be the policy objective. The money going to response and recovery needs to be redirected up front,” said Jim McGowan who welcomed the opportunity to contribute to the inquiry.

JMGwebProfessor McGowan (left) will participate in a forum initiated by the Productivity Commission in Brisbane on Monday next (June 30) to advance the case for the redirection of some resources used in response to and recovery from natural disasters towards prevention and mitigation activities.

A Griffith University research team, led by Professor McGowan, has investigated post-disaster experiences in four Australian towns, Marysville, Emerald, Carisbrook and Cardwell, where the challenges of recovering from and adapting to the impact of disasters were described firsthand. Their findings were outlined last year in a report published by the Regional Australia Institute.

“A shift away from response and recovery to prevention and mitigation is crucial. This has been recognised by the United Nations as part of its Disaster Risk Reduction Strategy and in many countries including the United States. Australia needs to follow this lead,” he said.

“It is also about getting small business in local communities up and running again. The current concentration on providing hardship grants for individuals affected by natural disasters should go into renewing business activity.

“Without policy change, the economic costs of natural disasters will continue to rise, creating significant demands on the budgets of all tiers of government, with potential long-term impacts on productivity and economic performance.”

Funding imbalance

As the economic cost of natural disasters in Australia continues to rise steeply, the lack of balance in the funding model is also exacerbated.  According to research from Deloitte Access Economics for the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities in 2013, the total cost of natural disasters in 2012 is estimated to have exceeded $6 billion. This figure is expected to double by 2030 and to rise to an average of $23 billion per year by 2050.

The Deloitte research noted that: ‘Each year an estimated $560 million is spent on post-disaster relief and recovery by the Australian Government compared with an estimated consistent annual expenditure of $50 million on pre-disaster resilience: a ratio of more than $10 post-disaster for every $1 spent pre-disaster.’

“This is without any consideration of the potential impact of climate change,” Professor McGowan says.

The rapidly increasing nature of the costs is demonstrated by the allocation of NDDRA funds in Queensland during the past decade. Including contributions from the Queensland government, these costs rose from $40 million in 2002 to almost $7 billion in 2011, with a total of $14 billion in the three-year period, 2009-2011, according to the Queensland Reconstruction Authority.

“We all have a stake in this and it is not just about government. People need to have the right insurance policies to protect their homes and businesses; local councils need to ensure their planning regimes do not endanger residents,” Professor McGowan says.

“We need to rethink this collectively. The implementation of a new framework will be difficult and challenging because of the politics involved but it is worth persevering with. The current arrangements are unsustainable in a future where climate change is likely to result in more frequent and more significant natural disaster events.”