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Townsville bolsters resilience with UN help

Townsville in Far North Queensland is the first Australian city to use a new disaster resilience scorecard developed by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) in partnership with AECOM and IBM.

The scorecard is an open-source methodology designed for local government use that assists with planning and implementing mitigation measures, engaging stakeholders and designing and delivering recovery plans for infrastructure, services, businesses and the broader community.

Townsville signed up to the UNISDR Making Cities Resilient campaign in September 2014 and is already putting a number of innovative disaster recovery strategies in place, including fitting out the Tony Ireland Stadium with solar panels so the venue is equipped to provide power for up to 100 people a week in the event of an emergency or disaster, such as a cyclone.

The council has also identified an opportunity to use an electric vehicle that was recently donated to it as a source of power, for example, to charge communications devices or provide light during disaster events when mains power is not available.

Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill said the scorecard would help build on the council’s ongoing disaster management and mitigation strategies.

“As a city that is at high risk of cyclones, planning and preparedness is paramount in developing a resilient community that can bounce back from disaster events,” Ms Hill said.

“Council has rolled out a number of initiatives to better protect the city’s infrastructure and is always considering new disaster mitigation opportunities though infrastructure renewal and development, capacity building and sustainability initiatives.”

Other Australian cities that have signed up to the Making Cities Resilient campaign, but are yet to implement the scorecard, are Adelaide, Cairns, Canberra, City of Gold Coast, Gympie, Lake Macquarie City and Sydney.

Margareta Wahlström

Margareta Wahlström

AECOM and IBM hosted a disaster resilience roundtable recently with UNISDR chief Margareta Wahlström that brought together representatives from the private sector and local, state and federal government to discuss the adoption of best practice disaster resilience measures across Australia.

Ms Wahlström told The Fifth Estate a multi-stakeholder approach to disaster resilience was required, especially where cities are part of a larger conurbation or there are multiple levels of government involved.

“A multi-stakeholder approach is at the heart of disaster risk reduction. The private sector is responsible for 70-85 per cent of overall investment in most economies so that’s an opportunity for a risk-informed business community to avoid future economic losses and to build the resilience of their customers, employees, shareholders and the communities which sustain them,” she said.

“Public–private partnerships are essential to ensuring that critical infrastructure and utilities are disaster proof or resilient enough to function during an emergency. Cities and towns need to have the organisation and coordination in place which allows for the participation of citizen groups and civil society.

Property sector can take a leading role

She said the property sector could take a proactive role in boosting the city resilience, as neither the private nor public sectors could succeed on their own.

“Businesses need to be helping to define building codes and ensuring their premises comply, thinking about how they can help in the event of a disaster and so on,” Ms Wahlström said.

“A new wave of urbanisation is underway around the world, and much of it is taking place in locations that are exposed to hazards such as earthquakes, floods and storms. This presents an opportunity to avoid creation of risk in the future and to invest in disaster resistant housing and to take responsibility for safely locating new developments.”

The business case is quite straightforward, she said, because if the public sector fails, business fails with it. For example, Intel, Toyota, Honda and IBM all lost large sums due to flooding in Thailand in 2010. The losses were exacerbated because the local responses had failed, such as levees having been stolen for building materials and storm drains that had not been maintained.

“When critical infrastructure is hit, business continuity becomes a major challenge. Disruptions to power, water supply and telecommunications are major concerns for the private sector in any disaster scenario,” Ms Wahlström said.

“Ultimately the risk loading on our businesses is reflected in our cost of capital.”

There are also gains to be made in terms of overall sustainability by taking a resilience approach. Ms Wahlström described sustainability issues as “chronic” stress and disasters as “acute” stress.

“They interact. For example, if I damage a mangrove swamp (chronic stress) I may worsen my exposure to floods (acute stress); or if I systematically over-draw my groundwater (chronic stress) I may be less able to deal with a drought (acute stress).”

Ms Wahlström said Townsville signing up to use the scorecard was an example of how business attitudes were starting to change.

“Townsville recognises that embedding disaster risk management in business processes is increasingly seen as a key to resilience, competitiveness and sustainability,” she said.

“Direct disaster losses are at least 50 per cent higher than internationally reported figures.

“The latest risk modelling estimates that losses so far this century are in the region of US$2.5 trillion. This is money that could be better invested in disaster resilient infrastructure.”

  • The scorecard and supporting information can be accessed here.

UNISDR’s 10 essentials for making cities resilient checklist summary

  1. Put in place organisation and coordination to understand and reduce disaster risk, based on participation of citizen groups and civil society. Build local alliances. Ensure that all departments understand their role in disaster risk reduction and preparedness.
  2. Assign a budget for disaster risk reduction and provide incentives for homeowners, low-income families, communities, businesses and the public sector to invest in reducing the risks they face.
  3. Maintain up-to-date data on hazards and vulnerabilities, prepare risk assessments and use these as the basis for urban development plans and decisions. Ensure that this information and the plans for your city’s resilience are readily available to the public and fully discussed with them.
  4. Invest in and maintain critical infrastructure that reduces risk, such as flood drainage, adjusted where needed to cope with climate change.
  5. Assess the safety of all schools and health facilities and upgrade these as necessary.
  6. Apply and enforce realistic, risk-compliant building regulations and land use planning principles. Identify safe land for low-income citizens and upgrade informal settlements, wherever feasible.
  7. Ensure that education programs and training on disaster risk reduction are in place in schools and local communities.
  8. Protect ecosystems and natural buffers to mitigate floods, storm surges and other hazards to which your city may be vulnerable. Adapt to climate change by building on good risk reduction practices.
  9. Install early warning systems and emergency management capacities in your city and hold regular public preparedness drills.
  10. After any disaster, ensure that the needs of the affected population are placed at the centre of reconstruction, with support for them and their community organisations to design and help implement responses, including rebuilding homes and livelihoods.

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