National and international frameworks

Although extreme weather is a feature of the Australian climate, predictions that extremes will change in intensity, frequency, duration and distribution mean that active and informed management is required to protect environmental and cultural values, maintain the viability of industries and enhance the resilience of communities to the impacts of extreme climate–driven events. Many of the changes wrought by extreme events are irreversible – for example, loss of human lives, effects on the mental health of affected communities, and severe impacts on species and ecosystems. This requires that our management focus is not solely on recovery and resilience building but on preparation and adequate planning.

In Australia, responsibilities relating to preparation for, and response to, extreme events range from those of the individual in a community to local, state and territory, and national levels of government, all placed in the context of international frameworks (Figure 19). As events become more extreme, our current understanding of extremes, and the policies and regulations built on this understanding are likely to be insufficient. Recognising this, we are seeing a changing allocation of government investment towards resilience actions rather than recovery from major events (Deloitte 2016).

Figure 19 Frameworks for natural disaster management at different geographic scales

National framework

Apart from the nature and severity of an event, its impact depends on a range of factors, including geographic location, landscape, level of development and type of infrastructure, population size and density, community preparedness, and socio-economic standing. Planning to enhance community, environmental and economic resilience needs to address all these factors.

Australia is guided by the United Nations Sendai Framework (UNISDR 2015) in its approach to risk and disaster resilience. The framework includes 4 priorities for action:

  • Understanding disaster risk.
  • Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk.
  • Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience.
  • Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, and to ‘build back better’ in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The Australian Government can provide physical and financial assistance after extreme events. Emergency Management Australia coordinates Australian Government disaster assistance to states and territories. The newly formed National Recovery and Resilience Agency is designed to provide support and advice to people impacted by natural disasters, and deliver initiatives that build resilience against the impacts of future events.

State and territory regulation

State and territory governments have primary responsibility for protecting life, property and the environment within their borders, and have established plans to respond to, and recover from, extreme events. The operational agencies that respond to extreme events and their impacts are also predominantly resourced by, and responsible to, state and territory governments. This is also the case for agencies that manage land that is not in private hands, or managed by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander land councils or organisations. The roles, responsibilities and relationships of emergency services, metropolitan and rural fire authorities, volunteers, land management agencies, and local government vary in each state and territory.

The Australia–New Zealand Emergency Management Committee comprises senior officials from the Australian Government and each state and territory government, plus a member from the Australian Local Government Association and a member from New Zealand; it reports to the National Emergency Management Ministers’ Meeting. The Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council also operates at a national level; it is the peak body representing 31 fire, emergency services and land management agencies in the Australasian region, coordinating interstate responses that do not require Australian Government support.

Planning guidelines

Planning standards have historically focused primarily on protecting people, secondarily on protecting assets and thirdly on protecting the environment. In terms of domestic structures, the focus has been on protecting occupants rather than resilience. With climate change, the existing design assumptions underpinning our built environment are changing, including infrastructure design, building standards, land planning and how to address increasingly unviable (or uninsurable) property.

Decisions about land-use planning, zoning, development, infrastructure, construction and environmental management all have the potential to influence a community’s exposure or vulnerability to hazards, and the magnitude of impacts on the community. Attention needs to be given not just to the update and application of standards and codes but also to where they are applied. This is because modelling suggests that the distribution of extreme events may change, bringing new areas under increased threat – for example, the potential for more southerly tracking of intense cyclones on both the east and west coasts of Australia.

The Northern Australia Insurance Inquiry (ACCC 2020) recommended extending the remit of the Australian Building Codes Board to include property protection as an objective to be pursued through the National Construction Code (recommendation 13.1). It also recommended that the insurance industry work with Standards Australia to develop voluntary standards for improved resilience to natural hazards, both for new homes and during retrofitting of existing dwellings (recommendation 13.2). An example of such collaboration is the OneHouse project funded by Suncorp Insurance, which brought James Cook University’s cyclone testing facility capability, CSIRO’s bushfire adaptation experts and Room 11 architects together to design a resilient residential structure based around a traditional Queenslander design that would resist flood, bushfire and cyclone (Suncorp 2021). The OneHouse has been designed to be built with readily available materials and require minimal repair after an event to enable families to remain in their communities.

The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre has recently funded researchers at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute to develop a Unified Natural Hazard Risk Mitigation Exploratory Decision support system (UNHaRMED), an interactive modelling platform designed to support policy-makers in considering the long-term impacts of disaster risk, mitigation and land-use planning. The platform enables planners to assess risks from multiple hazards, consider economic and population changes, and model the effects of different risk reduction options. For example, in a recent coastal storm tide exercise in the Port Adelaide area, it identified that coastally located licensed industrial premises or their access points may be inundated, resulting in mobilisation of pollutants, as well as loss of access to essential infrastructure such as landfills, fuel importation infrastructure and power plants. Such insights can support prioritisation of investment activities.

National Construction Code committees comprise volunteer engineers and building industry representatives, and there is no dedicated funding to commission targeted research. Different industry sectors are pursuing domain-specific questions, but this means that development lacks coordination.