In a recent report, the facts about Australia’s vulnerability to natural disasters were laid bare.

In its At What Cost? Mapping where natural perils impact economic growth and communities report released on November 8, Insurance Australia Group (IAG) looked at the extent to which the Australian economy and Australian communities are exposed to loss from natural disaster including cyclones, storms, floods, bushfires and earthquakes.

According to that report, more than 20 per cent of national GDP was produced and 17.3 per cent of the population lived or were located within local government areas (LGAs) with a high to extreme risk of tropical cyclone. A further 28.4 per cent were living in LGAs with high to extreme flood risk, and 58 per cent of the population were living in areas which are exposed to high or extreme risks of earthquake. Parts of the Melbourne CBD, meanwhile, were at very high risk of flood.

That report also highlighted what it said were weaknesses regarding Australia’s current approaches toward disaster risk mitigation and management. Even though every dollar spent on mitigation activities typically saves two dollars in repair and recovery costs, the Australian government’s spending on such measures amounted to only three per cent of what it spends on post disaster recovery efforts.

Moreover, the report argued that Australia more broadly had suffered from an ad-hoc approach to safeguarding its communities from dangers associated with disaster pretty much since European settlement.

That raises questions about how we are approaching disaster risk management at the moment and where we can improve.

One positive, Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience director John Bates said, revolves around the work which many within the insurance industry are undertaking in terms of researching and gaining insights as to where in fact our vulnerabilities lie.

Nevertheless, Bates says we suffer from a phenomenon whereby much of our building and infrastructure is constructed out of context with regard to the surrounding environment in which it sits and fails to take into account how it interacts with people and things around it in the event of a disaster.

As an example, the emergency management plans of one building within the Brisbane CBD involve the company in question having an arrangement with the hire company to book the biggest generator for themselves. What happens, Bates asks, where the generator in question has in fact been reserved multiple times or where emergency services decide that in fact they need it.

As another example, he says many schools have emergency management plans which sound logical in principle but which can be impacted by phenomenon such as other people turning up at the school seeking shelter or parents who collect their children inadvertently blocking exit and access routes.

“We have a plan that will satisfy a board and a safety committee, but have they really contemplated how it will work in practice?” Bates asked.

“Predominately, what I am seeing is that a lot of infrastructure and buildings being built and put up out of context in relation to where they are sitting. While something may be brilliant in its own right, it might be part of something a whole lot bigger. Unless it (the design) takes into account where it sits, why it sits and how it interacts with the things around it, it may not work in the way that people are after (in the event of an emergency).”

Bates says a further problem revolves around a lack of risk ownership and practices in which parties seek to transfer ownership of the risk onto others. Where services are provided to government by a telecommunications provider, he asked, who is responsible for ownership of the problem if the infrastructure fails – is it the telco or the government?

From the industry’s viewpoint, he said, there is a perception that government will pay when things go wrong. Governments, for their part, need to be prepared to pay for private sector partners to build enough of a buffer and spare capacity from which to withstand a shock. In the private sector, meanwhile, many parties who purchase the services of contractors or subcontractors make economic decisions to try to transfer as much risk as possible onto those parties, who may not indeed be able to service that risk unless they are being funded to do so.

Whereas government buildings and infrastructure in the 1960s and 70s were built with spare capacity and a buffer, Bates says this is largely no longer the case. The bottom line, he says, is that risk ownership is not being built into tender prices. There is an expectation that somebody will pick up the tab if things go wrong, but little definition as to who in fact that party in fact is.

Finally, Bates says there are issues of building design itself. He says some residential houses going up in Melbourne are going up with gutters which are largely hidden without any eaves. In a deluge of rain, he says there is only one place for the water to go – inside the home.

Others offer different perspectives. Speaking from a viewpoint of cyclones, tornadoes and major wind and storms, Dr David Henderson, director of the Cyclone Testing Station at James Cook University in Townsville, said there had been a lot of codification with regard to wind engineering within the National Construction Code in recent decades and our approach at least in terms of these type of events had been reasonably proactive from a life safety (NCC)viewpoint.

Nevertheless, Henderson feels there are challenges in terms of the implementation of those standards and ensuring that the final as-built product met the standards in question.

In the case of Tropical Cyclone Marcia, which made landfall over central Queensland in February 2015, Henderson and past chair of Engineers Australia’s Structural College Board Rob Heywood studied the performance of buildings during the event and the implications of this from an engineering perspective. During that study, the researchers found that the core structures of most buildings held up well but there were failures in terms of secondary elements of the building such as roofs cladding being ripped off, water ingress and pressurisation of structures due to failure of garage doors and windows and air conditioning units being blown off.

This, Henderson says, occurred despite the wind speeds recorded resulting in pressures of less than 55 per cent of the design pressure. He said this was likely a result of weaknesses not so much of the standards themselves but rather in how they are implemented throughout the design and construction chain.

A further area of challenge, Henderson says, revolves around older buildings which were constructed in line with standards which were in place several decades ago rather than current standards. In areas such as garage roller doors, he says technology has come a long way, adding that standards now are more stringent compared with what used to be the case.

Whilst he does not suggest there should be any requirement for property owners to upgrade their homes or commercial premises, he would like to see greater efforts to promote awareness about options created by improved technology as well as some form of incentive for owners to upgrade the resilience of their properties, potentially through lower insurance premiums.

As for the issue of standards implementation, he says it is important to drive greater awareness about the importance of this through the supply and construction chain.

“You might have robust codes and standards, but if it is not implemented properly, well then that’s what let those buildings down,” he said, referring to the aforementioned study.

“It’s getting the correct information and awareness out to the manufacturers, importers, designers, fabricators and the certifiers that ‘that screw is important, the right coating (is important), it’s the right type of screw with the right thread affixed in the correct way to the right material below it.’”

Bates, meanwhile, would like to see developers explain how their buildings and infrastructure will interact and respond with the surrounding environment in providing a resilient solution. It is also important to share both the positive lessons associated with building resilient structures and the lessons learned from cases where problems have occurred.

The built environment in Australia has significant levels of exposure to natural disaster.

Proactive management of risk with regard to our built environment is crucial if we are indeed to protect our assets and communities to the maximum possible extent.