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Challenges and responses to disasters

By Valerie Yule - posted Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Challenge and Response were what the historian Arnold Toynbee thought that history was about. He thought we could learn from responses that had failed, and so had doomed past civilisations. This year, 2011, faces every one of us with challenges such as we have rarely faced before. Few thought this time last year that floods would dominate the news in many countries, including Australia.

Houses of cards are tumbling around us, as real buildings collapse under bombs and natural catastrophes. Our responses are paradoxical. One breath of the newsreader is about the economic catastrophe if lucky consumers don’t consume more than they need, and other breaths are about the devastation of environmental disasters and climate change. GDP is increased by disasters because of the activity they cause; so much for how good is GDP as a measure of prosperity. We should be alert for such contradictions.

The floods indeed cause human activity, but that is not necessarily a good, despite the effect on the GDP. We need to think about what sorts of human activity. The real sum is not a sum about money, but about resources. The floods have wiped out vast resources, and put others in question - in buildings, mines, and farm produce. The millions of tonnes of mud have silted up the flood plains, which may be to the good for the plains, but eroded where it came from, and may pollute the seas.


The challenges to Australian enterprise represent, it is said, a watershed opportunity for the development of action and ideas that will ensure we reach our full potential as a dynamic, internationally competitive and prosperous nation.

We need responses to the floods that will solve other challenges too.

The immense destruction needs constructive responses that take into account our other needs as well. And we need as much knowledge as possible, when assessing what we do.

For example, we see all this water running out to sea, after the years of too little. “Dams!” are an immediate reaction. But dams require deep gullies behind them to store the water, not flood plains that will be covered by the excess. My father, Sir Ronald East of Victorian State Rivers, was an enthusiastic dam builder. He retired thinking there was little scope in Victorian rivers for more dams. What innovative thinking will find another solution? One suggestion is feeding the floods into the artesian basins - that will need care for unintended consequences before it is adopted wholesale.

Rebuilding is another immediate response - as with the bushfires. But rebuilding that is vulnerable to the next flood is not the way to go. What have we learned about the buildings that survived best? And the locations which require a change in land-usage? Fertile riverbanks were originally used by settlers for their market-gardens, not their houses. Building houses there again is counter to the opportunity to revert to the safer and more profitable purpose.

There has been little in the news about wild-life and stock losses. A picture of a wallaby on an island, or a story about 30 head of cattle found washed down-stream, is all that most of us have seen in the news. But we need to think about how animals can have refuges if this should happen again.


Salvage and replacement are challenges to Australian initiative and enterprise. A great deal will be chucked out which could be cleaned up or re-used elsewhere. Which entrepreneurs can carry out this re-use?

“Money!” is the immediate response to the tremendous challenges of replacement and refurbishment and rebuilding. The cheapest replacements may be imports. This is wasteful thinking. Australia has been running down her industries in the past 40 years. Now is the chance for entrepreneurs to set up new, to take the opportunities that are available.

But Australian manufacturers and builders also need caution. Their products must be first class and their workmanship free of scams and get-rich-quick mentalities. The fact that they will be producing for those in need through floods and fires should cry “shame!” on any who take unfair advantage of the need. They will benefit in the long run from establishing fine reputations, if they pause to think.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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