Creeping crises–does resilience fit?

BCAW2019 - Investing in Resilience - by Rick Stone

I was flying over Warragamba Dam a few weeks ago and was struck by just how low 55% capacity really is.  Sydney Water says that levels across 11 dams in Greater Sydney are dropping faster than they have in decades.  Every week the city is using 0.4% of the storage (11 billion litres or enough to fill 4,400 Olympic pools).  The desalination plant has been turned on to supplement the city’s supply.  Rain over the Sydney basin in March means the city is green; but the catchment largely missed out.  So Sydney, along with most of the rest of the state, is suffering one of nature’s most insidious creeping crises—drought.

How is the concept of resilience relevant to a slow-burn or chronic hazard, like drought?  Organisations like to talk about being resilient, but what does this really mean?  Many businesses think a resilient organisation is one that successfully navigates disruption or chaos.  The focus is usually on acute impacts, such as flood, fire, fraud or flu.  Organisations attempt to prevent the problem, cope with it if it occurs, and adapt to a new normal (if they survive).  But it’s hard to measure the success of these programs: did the organisation survive because it had really good preventative strategies, or were they just quick on their feet with a response, or have just been lucky?

Another concept of resilience is “adaptability”.  Resilient organisations can be adaptable to shocks – the traditional acute impact; and they can also be adaptable to slower, less obvious stresses.  Farming is a good example—a resilient farmer needs to be able to adapt to the impact of a bushfire (acute) and a drought (chronic).  The challenge is to recognise the slowly evolving stress and respond early enough to minimise its impact.  These are difficult decisions—does the community invest in building an expensive water pipeline when “it might rain tomorrow”?  The Resilient Cities initiative, pioneered by the Rockerfeller Foundation, recognises the importance of adapting to both stresses and shocks.  Cities including Sydney and Melbourne have adopted resilience strategies that embrace this concept.  Businesses and other organisations can benefit from a similar approach.

Our communities, and the natural and economic environments on which they depend, face significant stresses.  As resilience practitioners, we need to ask ourselves; are we paying attention to the slowly evolving risks and politically complex challenges, such as climate change?  Or are we staying in the comfort zone of planning and practising for acute impacts?

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The beauty and terror of Australian weather

“I love a sunburnt country, 
A land of sweeping plains, 
Of ragged mountain ranges, 
Of droughts and flooding rains. 
I love her far horizons, 
I love her jewel-sea, 

Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!”

From My Country by Dorothea Mackellar

Summer weather risks are widespread across our great southern continent. Bushfires, drought, severe storms and tropical cyclones can disrupt communities and businesses in regional, rural and remote Australia. Cities are also vulnerable to risks including too much water, too little water, extreme heat, severe storms, bushfire on the urban fringe and infrastructure failures such as power, water, gas and telecommunications.

Bushfires often receive the lion’s share of media coverage, which is understandable as they can arise quickly and sometimes involve large loss of life. And the seemingly inbuilt fascination humans have with fire keeps this threat front of mind.

However, floods, severe storms, hailstorms, earthquakes and cyclones are, in many ways, more destructive than bushfires each summer. Recent data suggests most insured building losses are spread across the range of severe weather categories. While in terms of fatalities, extreme heat is responsible for 55% of natural hazard deaths, followed by tropical cyclone (15.6), flood (14.8%), bush/grassfire (10.5%), landslide and lightning (1% each) with other storm types plus earthquake totalling just over 2%. Uninsured (or uninsurable) losses are largely due to flooding and are significantly higher than insured losses. 

All this means that natural hazards mitigation must cover a grouping of those events most likely in your location. Research, analysis and advice is vital to determine and rank which hazards your family or business should be focused on.

For regular weather updates, the Bureau of Meteorology will keep you across relevant information for your area. In a time of crisis you can keep on top of important information at your local ABC radio station, Twitter (@ABCemergency), ABC emergency website and apps such as EmergencyAUS and Fires Near Me.  In addition, each state and territory has its own emergency management portal:  ACT, NSW, NT, Qld, SA, Tas, Vic, WA.

Families and businesses can prepare for all these hazards. Extensive guides are available from emergency services for individual hazards in each state and territory. The Red Cross has a national all-hazard disaster preparedness guide for families.  You can also visit the fire agency and State Emergency Service websites in your state or territory for specific information about fires, storms (including cyclones) and floods.

The most important thing is to spend time discussing your options before the crisis emerges. Families and businesses should have a plan to follow when disaster strikes. Waiting until severe weather strikes to consider evacuation, asset protection and other factors can end in disaster.

Businesses need to understand their vulnerabilities and how key suppliers and customers might be affected by natural disasters. Tigertail helps businesses assess their key risk areas, build effective plans for times of crisis and runs training workshops to get the whole team up to speed.

The federal government has developed a template to help organisations prepare for all weather related risks this summer. Working with Tigertail, your business can understand, complete and improve upon this template. Crisis preparedness improves resilience in supply and delivery chains, flexibility in employment relations and companywide efficiencies.

Summer is a time for all Australians to relax. Our whole year is seemingly spent getting ready for those few hot months where most of us slow down and enjoy some quality family time. Whether you’re at the beach, in the bush or in town, you’ll enjoy this time of year even more if your family and/or business is prepared for anything our sometimes-harsh country can dish out.