There are significant shortcomings in Victoria’s emergency management arrangements, according to the former state Police Commissioner, Neil Comrie, who led the Victorian Government’s ‘Review of the 2010-2011 Flood Warnings and Response’.
In the recently released final report of the flood review Mr Comrie observes that the Black Saturday bushfires of 7 February 2009 and the widespread floods of late 2010, early 2011, have severely tested Victoria’s emergency management arrangements.
Mr Comrie’s report makes 93 recommendations – this is in addition to the 67 recommendations made already by the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.
Emergency arrangements are regulated through the Emergency Management Act 1986 (the EM Act), which is intended to ensure an organised structure exists to facilitate planning, preparedness, operational control and co-ordination as well as community participation in prevention, response and recovery from an emergency incident.
“The ‘all hazards, all agencies’ philosophy of emergency management remains appropriate for Victoria,” Mr Comrie says in the final Victorian Flood Review (VFR) report.
“However, this philosophy is not being effectively implemented because of barriers in organisational culture, communication, co-ordination, interoperability and information collation and sharing. This situation is not sustainable and requires major reform,” he says.
The University of Melbourne is lending its considerable expertise to the reform process with its newly established Natural Disaster Management Research Initiative (NDMRI). Heading the NDMRI is Melbourne academic, Professor Peter Taylor, from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in the Faculty of Science.
“We want to be able to provide government with research-based solutions that can be applied to all natural disasters and aid societal resilience and improve recovery,” Professor Taylor explains.
“The main objectives of the NDMRI will be to reduce the loss of life from natural disasters in Australia and internationally, reduce the impacts of natural disasters on assets and essential services, and reduce the negative economic and livelihood impacts of disasters. We are aware that there is a critical need for a rigorous knowledge base to aid planning and decision-making – and the Australian research community has a lot to offer in this regard.”
The NDMRI will co-ordinate research structured under five broad disciplinary areas: data and communications; environmental science and land management; economic, regulatory and policy interests; social and community health and wellbeing, and urban planning and infrastructure. Research program priorities will be to apply technological solutions to issues of a cross-disciplinary nature.
The University of Melbourne recently welcomed the new IBM Research and Development – Australia Laboratory which will help the community better prepare for and better cope with major natural disasters and lead to a more sustainable future.
The laboratory, focused on the theme of ‘a Smarter Planet’, is IBM’s first continuous exploration, whole-of-university relationship and will see IBM researchers from laboratories around the world exploring opportunities with University of Melbourne researchers from across all schools and faculties. Projects in natural resources, disaster management and healthcare are being explored in collaboration with businesses, universities, and government agencies.
“By linking planning, exercise, actual disaster management and recovery into a coherent system, we will be able to provide more resilient systems and services to society, government and businesses,” says Dr Juerg von Kaenel, Senior Research Manager, IBM Research and Development – Australia.
“We intend to achieve this by building a platform which allows various models to be run in real-time for instant display in a highly visual and interactive form to decision-makers.”
Australia-Pacific and South-East Asia experience a range of natural disasters including bushfires, cyclones, floods, tsunamis, severe storms, dust storms, earthquakes and landslides.
“These events cause great financial hardship for individuals and communities, and result in significant loss of life. The past three years have provided devastating evidence of these impacts in Australia, New Zealand and Japan,” says Professor Taylor.
“Bushfires have become a significant seasonal hazard across south-eastern Australia due to long-term droughts, increased population sprawl and a changing climate.”
The tragic bushfires in Victoria on Black Saturday (7 February 2009) resulted in Australia’s largest single loss of life from a bushfire. In addition to claiming 173 lives, the fires destroyed more than 2000 homes and 3500 structures.
The first quarter of 2011 saw the Christchurch earthquake which devastated a whole city and led to hundreds of deaths and, soon after this, the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan resulting in many thousands dead, and severe damage to nuclear reactors.
Although Australia lies more safely within a tectonic plate, there is still a significant risk from earthquakes, according to Professor Taylor.
Most recently, the strongest La Niña event since 1973 has been associated with major floods in eastern Australia and the largest tropical cyclone to cross the Australian coast. In Queensland, three-quarters of the state was declared a disaster zone with more than 70 towns and more than 200,000 people affected, and 35 confirmed deaths. In Victoria, more than 51 communities were impacted and two lives lost.
According to Mr Comrie’s final VFR Report, major regional flooding occurs somewhere in Victoria every 10 to 20 years. In the past century major regional floods occurred in 1909, 1916, 1917, 1934, 1956, 1974, 1990, 1993 and 1998.
There are 39 drainage basins across Victoria, each comprising a number of rivers and streams. These rivers and streams are subject to flooding and travel through and around many towns and communities.
“The increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters due to climactic variability, and the threat of low probability/high consequence events, coupled with changes in technology, social behaviour and infrastructure, present significant challenges to those responsible for policy,” Professor Taylor observes.
“Increasing pressure has been placed on governments and government agencies to mitigate and respond to natural disasters.
“The Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria questioned the quality of this response as has the Review of the 2010-11 Flood Warnings and Response.”
The recently-released green paper ‘Towards a More Disaster Resilient and Safer Victoria’, cites research that in 2010 a total of 385 natural disasters killed more than 297,000 people worldwide, affected over 217 million others and caused US $123.9 billion in economic damage. This figure does not take into account the widespread natural disasters of 2011 including the Japan earthquake.
“This brief snapshot of recent natural disasters indicates that now is the time to address these challenges with every resource available,” says Professor Taylor.
“Currently, research in this area is occurring in separate nodes across the country, and we perceive that maximum efficiency and impact will be gained where these efforts can be combined,” he says.
“If we are better prepared, then we as a society will be able to respond better to future natural disasters.”
Five NDMRI projects received grants from the Natural Disaster Resilience Grants Scheme (NDRGS), an inaugural grants scheme managed through the Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner.
The projects are: