Taking resilience to another level: how ecologically-based resilience to natural disasters can enhance community and the economy of society

The floods in north Queensland earlier this year (2019) were repeatedly described as a one-in-100-year event. This added a bit to the dramatic narrative effect of the evening news, which, to be honest, was getting a bit tired. We have been hearing about major natural disasters being so rare that we have forgotten to take note of one simple fact: in the 21st century climatic conditions are such that natural disasters of the magnitude we witnessed are not rare. In fact, they are more common than we realise. In 2016, the USA was hit by five flooding events that were each supposed to be one in 1000-year events. In 2017, Houston Texas experienced its third flood in three years. Each flood was supposed to be a one in 500-year event.
The list of supposed rare events breaking all the rules has been growing for years. Therefore, there is very little, if any, value in acting surprised. The real surprise is how much Australia lags in investing in resilience that incorporates better integration of land restoration and conservation as the first line of defense against future catastrophes.
Considering the fact that major events are occurring more often, we need to take look at the cost of these events, which annually add up to hundreds of billions of dollars. Furthermore, the period of full recovery from natural disasters can take years. The final number in the equation stems from repeated findings that investing $1 in mitigation (a part of the resilience approach) saves up to $10 in recovery. The business case for more investment is hard to ignore. The real question then is how this investment should occur to achieve what long-serving previous president of the Rockefeller Foundation Judith Rodin famously called ‘the resilience dividend’.
We have seen many improvements over the years. Here in Australia the narrative of disaster resilience has picked up steam since Tropical Cyclone Larry in 2006. A few years later, the Federal and State governments joined forces in developing the first national disaster resilience plan and commenced investment in range of resilience projects. No doubt many projects have improved our defenses and increased our capacity to recover faster and more efficiently, but the complexity of natural disaster events has also become a larger headache. This is largely due to the fact that often not enough time passes between natural disasters for full recovery to take place. We have also come to realise that old data and thinking is not sufficient. For instance, while for many years we focused on the strength of cyclones and built our defenses accordingly, we have since seen that sometimes cyclones can be weaker but still bring about more damage because they move much slower and dump more water.
A critical element in an approach to better resilience to natural disasters that has not yet been fully realised is the way we mobilise land restoration and conservation following natural disasters. Over the years there has been sporadic interest in working out how to handle revegetation that would be more resistant to any impacts of future events and would recover better following such events.
From time to time, environmental agencies have provided advice on what trees should be planted after cyclones. But there has been no systematic nation-wide approach to development and implementation of standards that would form an integral part of any natural disaster resilience program. Invariably there is recognition within disaster resilience strategies across States that improvements to land management can serve as a buffer to major events. However not enough strategic dialogue has been generated on a national level. More significantly, the current strategies tend to act as a collection of different approaches that cater for different needs. We tend to talk about business resilience to natural disasters as separate from community, and environment. The real connecting point for natural disasters is the land on which all built and social infrastructure is based. It would make strong sense to consider an approach where the starting point for resilience to extreme weather events is based on maximising the capacity of our landscapes to absorb shock and recover faster.
It is unavoidable that flooding, for instance, needs to be improved with a range of mitigating strategies, including civil engineering projects. These activities however need to dovetail in with ecological restoration and conservation activities that specifically address new climatic patterns. Replanting trees after cyclones, floods and fires is one thing. Replanting them while knowing that they may not reach maturity before the next disaster strikes is another ball game. Restoring wetlands and waterways after floods should be developed with resilience of the whole system in mind, including the community and the economy.
Over the years there has been a plethora of projects globally that worked under the principle of ‘build back better’. These approaches, adopted by authorities world-wide, were about making sure that houses, buildings, roads and other infrastructure were built using new standards and guidelines to increase their capacity to resist natural disasters and also make them less costly to repair. The same principle should apply to environmental restoration.
A couple of years ago I spoke to a landowner who cared deeply about his land located near the Great Barrier Reef and his local community that is regularly impacted by flooding events. What stuck in my mind was the fact that, while he praised the water improvement work completed on his property which ultimately helps the Great Barrier Reef, he was keen to explain how those same improvements to local waterways actually reduced flooding to his home and the local community. This is not an isolated case but rather a strong indication that a range of projects that focus on environmental outcomes can be interconnected to deliver a larger impact; a resilience dividend of sorts that is not possible when different projects or initiatives do not work collaboratively.
The concept of resilience was well developed long before it emerged in the disaster management discourse. Ever since Canadian ecologist Buzz Holling’s seminal paper on ecological resilience was published nearly half a century ago, ecologists and earth scientists with a range of specialisations have worked on developing a very rich bank of knowledge that can tell us how landscapes respond to a host of extreme events, and how they recover and thrive against odds. That knowledge should be the basis of a new approach to disaster resilience in Australia as it transitions into an age of yearly floods and fires that are theoretically ‘one in 100-year’ events.