Engineers must focus on resilience and adaptation when rebuilding after bushfires

21 January 2020

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AUSTRALIA – As this summer’s horrific bushfire season stretches on, communities that have faced fires are turning their sights to what comes next.

And when it comes to figuring out how to begin that process of rebuilding and recovery, engineers will find themselves playing a key role.

However, experts caution, that role will need to take into account the changing circumstances that have put communities at risk in the first place.

“We’ve got to actually plan for a future that might be something much more difficult than what we want,” said Neil Greet, an expert in disaster management and strategic leadership in crises, and a member of Engineers Australia’s College of Leadership and Management Board.

“It’s all about changing the way we think. And at the heart of this is the way we engineer — with procurement, the way we structure contracts.”

Greet was a member of the Partnership Team on the Federal Government’s National Resilience Taskforce, and he acknowledges that resilience and adaptation are “a bit of a catchcry” at the moment.

Specific measures

That catchcry has extended even to Parliament House; Prime Minister Scott Morrison has flagged resilience as the focus of his government’s response to climate change.

“I think more significantly that resilience and adaptation need an even greater focus,” Morrison said last week.

“We must build our resilience for the future and that must be done on the science and the practical realities of the things we can do right here to make a difference.”

Morrison has mentioned specific measures as part of this approach.

“Building dams is key to that,” he said.

“Native vegetation management is key to that. Land clearing is key to that. Where you can build homes is key to that.”

All of those aspects might be part of a resilient approach to disaster response, Greet told create. But he added that we need a broader understanding of what resilience means.

“Those elements may be good in some places and in some locations, but it’s just not simply building things,” he said.

“All that does is reinforce that we can just do things the same way we’ve always done them and that somehow we will protect ourselves against the hazards of the future.”

Threat of systems collapsing

Lara Harland, Senior Consultant at EnviroEngineering Solutions in Brisbane and Chair of Engineers Australia’s Environmental College, believes that the bushfires are a reminder of the urgency of climate change action.

Harland participated in a panel on climate change at the World Engineers Convention (WEC) in Melbourne this past November.

“Even if we stopped all emissions today, we’ve still got a 20 per cent chance of our current economic social systems collapsing due to climate change,” she told create.

“I think that was a really important point that came out of the [WEC] workshop. Given that it is such a high risk, we need to be putting processes in place to look at these risk scenarios and come up with some better plans to manage situations, such as bushfires, as they arise.”

Greet agreed that resilience needs to be undertaken on a holistic and society-wide scale.

“We actually have to start looking at where the most vulnerable areas are and providing assistance to those areas right now,” he said.

“The people who are most affected by these events — these horrific events — are often the poor and those who can’t change. We have to pay attention to some of the problems, deeper social problems in our community that the poor and disadvantaged are exposed to. It’s about changing the way our communities are structured.”

That is an ongoing process, Greet said.

“You change the way we do things. You change how we do our land use, how we do our development, our relationship with the bush,” he said.

“There’s not going to be one fix. There is no silver bullet.”

Petr Matous, a Senior Lecturer in the University of Sydney’s School of Civil Engineering, said that one focus for recovering communities should the principle of “build back better”.

“It’s basically about not just rebuilding the same thing in the same place. Because that will be exposed to hurt again and potentially more hurt in the future — thinking of how to rebuild the destroyed communities and destroyed infrastructure in a way that will be more resilient,” he told create.

“I think in the recovery effort, we’ll have tens of thousands of potential projects to start upgrading. But what we should probably map out is both of these physical and social interdependencies. And from there, we may find out what are the key, critical points within these multilayered infrastructure networks in which strengthening and reinforcing would decrease the vulnerability of the communities in the future the most.”

That requires understanding how communities as a whole use their infrastructure.

“Understanding how different bits of the infrastructure are socially interdependent in terms of the users requires working with the local stakeholders, with their local community to find out really within these social interdependencies what are the critical points that need to be protected,” Matous added.

“Because they support many other parts of the functioning of the community.”

Serious security issue

Other experts are also cautioning that rushing to rebuild without properly planning for the future could expose communities to similar disasters to what they have faced already.

“There’s a risk that rebuilding the same buildings in the same areas may not mitigate the current risks or any future risks under new climate scenarios — existing and new communities will be vulnerable,” said Mark Maund, Kim Maund and Thayaparan Gajendran of the University of Newcastle.

“Importantly, we must not rush to rebuild the same buildings in the same location. We need to consider risks from natural hazards in these bushfire-prone areas such as ember attack, radiant heat, flammable building materials and safe evacuation routes.”

Greet said he wants Australia to look at resilience as a serious security issue.

“I think it is critically important to our nation’s future and our nation’s security,” he said.

“It’s really important to say that because it’s not considered to be mainstream. It’s got to be recognised as much more important to our government and our bureaucrats.”

But he also believes we should focus on solutions rather than looking to apportion blame for mistakes of the past.

“I understand that politicians like to give people simple answers, but there is no simple answer here,” Greet said.

“We have to actually grapple with a range of complex, difficult things and that’s what engineers are good at grappling with.”

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