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Fires, floods, droughts, cyclones and earthquakes: what should we do?

By Edward Blakely - posted Friday, 1 July 2022

A recent international climate change report indicates that Australia is set to have more fires, floods, droughts, cyclones, and earthquakes. Currently, we have four inquiries on the go regarding the causes and consequences of recent disasters across the nation. Each investigation will tell us what happened, but their mandate does not extend to assisting policymakers do what is necessary to mitigate and respond to similar catastrophes in the future.

One option is to prepare for disaster. In early 1960, the Netherlands committed over 10% of its national fiscal resources to not just building, but continuing to enhance national capacity to withstand environmental shock. Their plan to rebuild the nation so that it could withstand danger is paying off handsomely. The Netherlands is one of the world's largest food producers on a land mass smaller than South Australia and it is turning disaster into an opportunity. Australia must follow a similar model. We need to fashion a Commonwealth policy and program that reduces national environmental danger while enhancing our capacity to sustain a productive economy. I suggest a four-pillar approach. This is a sketch for discussion, and more ideas are welcome. Doing nothing is not an option. Either we pay now or pay more later. Here is a discussion opener:

v National Environment and Disaster Management Agency


A national agency must maintain a continuous organizational command and direction for dealing with current and future risks, with funding from a central source. Disasters do not respect local jurisdictional lines, so we need an entity committed to mapping out a long term, cross-jurisdictional, collaborative approach to reducing risk and enhancing bio-environmental opportunities. These would include coordinated locations for wind, solar and bio-energy generation built on protected land that might also function as wildland preservation where appropriate.

The national organisation must led by an independent board, with staggered appointments. It will lead national strategy for the designation of bio-sensitive habitat and it will fund state and local cooperative programs for hazard reduction in bio-sensitive areas and replenishment of the biosphere. National maps outlining risks such as flood zones must be based on nationally recognized standards developed and board-authorized, so all risk assessments are uniform across the nation.

The national agency would also establish the National Environmental and Disaster Management Academy for the development of a cadre of trained personnel from existing local and state organizations. In addition, the Agency would provide grants to jurisdictions and agencies for partial funding of Disaster Manager position(s).

v National Lands Management Bureau

An adjunct organization within the Agency would be a national lands management agency. This land might be amalgamated into large managed land reserves. Any land claimed or secured would have to be subject to native title review by indigenous people. This approach has two benefits: it generates large natural habitats for species preservation rather than the current mixed approach which does not provide sufficient land for species breeding or protection. Also, collaborative opportunities would arise between the Agency and Indigenous people funding local aboriginal organizations for land management.

The Bureau would commence the acquisition of strategic vulnerable sites on a voluntary basis or at the end of tenure (death or sale), similar to the California Coastal Commission.


v Disaster Preparation and Assistance Organisation

The Disaster Preparation and Assistance Organisation might resemble the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This portion of the organisation would be always prepared for disaster. It would be staffed by trained professionals, like the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, with offices strategically located around the nation. The organization, like the army reserves, would have a small full-time staff in each field office and a cadre of ex-military, nurses, doctors, technicians and other on stand-by attached to equipped field offices with operational equipment such as tractors, much like an engineering field deployment. Some team leaders would be on small stipends, increased when called to duty in the same way fire fighters are paid for time in the field.

Again, much like an army reserve unit capabilities and equipment would differ by location, but much of the field equipment, including shelters and water systems, would be part of the base equipment mix.

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About the Author

Edward J. Blakely is Honorary Professor of Urban Policy at the United States Studies Centre, Sydney University. Professor Blakely is an international expert on urban planning and development and most recently head of recovery in New Orleans. He also served as the Chair of the Sydney Metropolitan Plan Reference Panel 2003-2004. He can be heard on the radio Sunday nights at 8PM on internet radio Blakely City Talk broadcasts the same podcast anytime.

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