Catastrophic disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, dam bursts or cyclones could leave Australia flagging because of a lack of preparedness, a new report says.
A wide-ranging review of Australia’s resilience to a major natural disaster says such events pose a threat to normal life across significant areas of the country, similar to security challenges.
The focus on national security has obscured the potential for much greater deaths and casualties caused by extreme natural disasters and the need for an all-hazards risk approach, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) says.
The report – Taking a Punch: Building a More Resilient Australia – says the country has been very lucky not to have faced the “big one”.
“(That’s) the catastrophic event that produces extensive casualties and loss of life, widespread damage, large numbers of displaced people, significant business failure, extreme relief and recovery costs that simply overwhelms our capacity to respond,” the report said.
“Examples might include a major earthquake on one of our big cities, a tsunami hitting a major population centre on the east coast, a major flood or dam burst in a densely populated area, or significant flooding from the impact of a major cyclone combined with storm surge that affects both urban and regional centres simultaneously.
“There’s little information on the record to generate public confidence that we really know what the breakpoint is in terms of surge and sustainability.”
The report said history was not a guide.
“Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin on December 25 1974 with 65 dead, 150 major injuries and air evacuation of around 30,000, many deciding not to return to Darwin,” it said.
“The Granville rail smash in 1977 resulted in 83 deaths and 213 hospitalised. We managed these events effectively.
“On a comparative scale of other events which have impacted other countries and regions, these two cases are small scale.”
A key concern was the importance of having a single-incident management system for command and control of emergencies which can be adapted quickly from the routine to a nationally-declared incident, APSI said.
“Currently there are many systems across policing and emergency authorities.
“If these were harmonised under a common approach it would enable all agencies to contribute through appropriate access and generate greater community confidence and resilience.”
Australia does not have an appropriate, effective, timely national community information and warning system capable of being used in the lead-up to, occurrence of, and recovery from disasters.
“Recent improvements to tsunami monitoring are commendable, but don’t help to convey the message of a potential impact to communities in the middle of the night.”
About 30 per cent of councils in Australia were under severe financial stress with asset management and improvements urgently required, APSI said.
Work commissioned by the Australian Local Government Association suggests a national backlog of $14.5 billion in local government infrastructure renewal work, notably for bridges which can be vital in dealing with natural disasters.
“Climate change will compound the risks of disruption and have a direct influence on the type, scale and frequency of disasters and emergencies Australia will face, including increased flooding, more frequent and intense storms, lightning events and bushfires.
“More coastal zone residential developments are simply increasing these risks.”