CSR Ideas

Building Australia’s resilience to natural disasters needs collaboration

The current state of play in respect to the way we deal with disasters, especially when it comes to the resilience element, resembles Abraham Maslow’s often repeated observation ‘when the only tool you have is a hammer then all the problems start to look like nails’.

Over the past decade we have seen an increase in discussions on how best to deal with natural disasters.  A key argument has emerged with a strong global consensus (Hyogo is one example of a formal global agreement) that a collaborative approach is the key.  Over the past several years, Australia (Queensland and Victoria in particular) has suffered an unprecedented level of disruption to social and economic life and a significant loss of life.  To this date it continues to be a major challenge.  NSW bushfires last month are case in point.

The economic cost of disasters has impacted society across all levels.  Numerous reports, including a very recent study by Deloitte, confirm this.  Over the years, the cost of recovery from natural disasters has been increasing, due in part to the fact that many areas (communities, businesses, individual households) have been impacted multiple times over a period of two or three years, thus making effective recovery costlier.  Many reports indicate that successive disasters, particularly in Queensland as the state most likely to be affected by natural disasters, have started to have a major impact on local economies, the social fabric and the overall socio-economic sustainability of local lifestyles.  The pressures associated with the cost of recovery have impacted all.  The bill to tax payers continue to rise, and the impact on Governments’ abilities to build effective resilience across all levels have diminished, in part due to economic conditions that do not favour capacity building investment.  This cycle of inactivity is more likely to lead to further delays in reaching sustainable levels of resilience that local business communities, families and individuals need in the long term.

...through collaboration?

…through collaboration?

Over the past several years government agencies, community organisations and businesses have engaged in a level of conversation with the hope of attaining a unified strategy for building disaster resilience.  Unfortunately, instabilities and regular changes in political direction have contributed to a somewhat lethargic response by the community in general, whose expectations remain largely unmet.  It is true that there was significant amount of funding injected toward programs of building resilience and there were programs and projects that delivered genuine outcomes with considerable positive impact in selected areas.  However, the consistency of approach has not been supported by key funding agencies and has therefore resulted in many outcomes falling short of reaching a sustainable level; something that requires time and commitment.

One of the key challenges in achieving resilience (which in turn would lead to significant cost reductions in terms of response and recovery from the currently estimated ratio of 1:10) is the fact that the general population associates resilience building only with natural disaster events.  As a rule of thumb, the general population, particularly in areas where disasters are not repeated every year or so, tends to believe that resilience can be built as a one off exercise rather than via a systematic change of behaviour.  This is particularly true in the case of small and medium sized businesses who effectively are frustrated by the lack of coherent and systematic support.

The critical aspect of disasters today, as opposed to several decades ago, is the fact that the economic structure of society is far more based on business connectedness and reliance on each other.  In effect, local business is never truly local.  This in turn has a cascading effect on any business in the chain.  As observed by a number of disaster resilience professionals, many business owners underestimate the impact of a disaster that takes place say 2000km away.

It is with these factors in mind, along with a host of other well documented challenges, that I have been investigating a long term strategy that would create a more independent approach to building resilience across the business community, families, individuals etc.  The central premise is that resilience building cannot be achieved with exclusive reliance on government leadership.  Instead, an entrepreneurial and businesslike approach should be taken.  In my long held view (since early 2008, when I managed a disaster evacuation centre in Emerald during a major flood event in central Queensland) that the permanency of the threat of natural disasters and their impact calls for a shift from an ‘event managed’ approach to a regular “day-to-day effort” in building resilience.  Emergency management will continue to play an important, and in some cases critical, role in terms of response to major natural disasters, however the recovery, and most importantly a better readiness level based on a resilience, can only be achieved by sustained effort.

It is with that in mind that I remain convinced that a collaborative strategy should be the starting point.  Major challenges across the globe have increasingly been solved by mega-collaborations which are not just ‘rhetoric calls to work together’, but rather strategically designed alliances that consider anybody who can provide value as a stakeholder.

I find it peculiar that we continue to tax the Australian population (including those who are affected by disasters) and ignore the fact that we have a unique opportunity to export resilience building as an industry which could produce the capital required to offset its cost (rather than diverting the taxpayer’s dollar away from many vital disaster recovery costs).

Having said that, hope prevails that we will soon come to realise that a collaboration strategy, competition and innovative entrepreneurialism will be a way forward.


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1 reply »

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