The sky is brighter, the air is warmer, there’s a vibe in the air. I, along with 3000 others, are in Meanjin/Brisbane to talk about reducing disaster risk. Every 2 years the UN brings governments across the world together in their regions to talk about how they will continue to tackle disaster risk, so that people’s lives are not catastrophically disrupted and they can get on with achieving the hopes, goals and aspirations. This year its in Meanjin/Brisbane (it was supposed to be last year, and the year before, but, well we know what got in the way.). The Asia Pacific Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (say that 3 times quickly while balancing on one leg with your eyes closed) will bring together governments, non government organisations, private sector, universities, peak bodies, and individuals to have, hopefully frank conversations about this existential challenge. It’s the first time that Pacific nations have been formally recognised, so important given their exposure to the impacts of climate change fuelled extreme weather events.
I was fortunate enough to attend the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai in Japan in 2015. These conferences are monumental efforts. I know, as my aunt used organise them for the UN, and has many stories to tell about the intricacies of getting the seating right, the protocols, the formalities. The late Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days, apart from being a cracking read, also gives insight into these ministerial conferences. They are extraordinary events, and they are energising.
Energy is needed. For too many years we have been prepared to just clean up after the event, wring our hands and say we must do more, and then fall back into the same old ways. Recovery is costly. We can run community based resilience in one place for a year for the cost of having a aerial helitanker in the air for a day. These costs are eye watering, and you know what, there’s a lot of schooling, health, transport, arts and culture, aged care, you could get for $73billion a year in 2060, which is what disaster costs are projected to reach.
But more than being costly, disasters mess with people’s lives. And its not just an inconvenience for a few days or weeks. People talk about lives being put on hold for years. Our research indicated that 5-10 years after the event, people are still experiencing significant distress. This means the life you mapped out to live, doesn’t happen. Sometimes people come through the experience, and find that it has changed them positively, a phenomenon known as post traumatic growth. But the growth comes from pain, and they wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Climate change is here, and it is fuelling disasters. We are going to see more of them, they will be in places we don’t expect (Category 5 Cyclones in Brisbane, anyone), and they will be more intense. Our urbanisation drives these risk, by sheer weight of numbers. Most Australians live in cities. Let alone the fragile nature of our systems. Increasing disadvantage means that people will get left behind. They won’t have resources to prepare, and to recovery. With increasing polarisation, there will be political conflict, this may spill out into politically motivated violence. Increasingly sophisticated criminal and state based cyberharm can also change the courses of lives. And I’m reminded as the ground keeps ever so slightly moving under our feet, we haven’t had a major earthquake since 1989 in Newcastle, but if the Melbourne quake of last year was much stronger, then we’d be dealing with a whole different ball game.
The good news is that things seem to be moving. We have seen the start of greater investment in DRR, both under the previous government and this government. Using the Emergency Response Fund invested funds for disaster resilience is a no brainer, and thankfully this will happen. I hope that it also funds non structural mitigation measures such as community based resilience. The creation of the National Emergency Management Agency (which is really just going back to the former version of Emergency Management Australia) is sensible, as this gives us end to end integration of disaster management. The appointment of Brendan Moon as Coordinator General is inspired. Putting someone with technical expertise in charge of resilience and recovery is paramount. Too long have there been appointments, particularly to recovery coordinator roles of people who do not have the understanding of nuance of recovery. It is nuanced.
We are seeing more organisations putting effort into community based resilience; ourselves, Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, Minderoo, Fire to Flourish, being supported by philanthropic foundations and research. Putting the community at the centre of decision making is critical
I’ve brought along two books with me, both set in Meanjin/Brisbane. Kirsten Alexander’s Riptides, which is set in 1974, and has the 74 flood as one of the protagonists, the other is Margaret Cook’s River with a City Problem a history of flooding in Meanjin/Brisbane. These should keep me going. And of course, it wouldn’t be travels without the obligatory playlist, with meanjin/Brisbane being home to the legendary Saints, Ed Kuepper, Go Betweens, Halfway among others.
A ten minute version of Electrical Storm by Oxley’s favourite son