There has been an increasing number of natural disasters between 1900 and 2012 with a significant rise from 1960 onward. According to the International Disaster Database, what is most apparent is that the majority of these are ‘hydro-meteorological’ or weather and climate related.
Some natural hazards occur because of forces outside our control such as the movement of Earth’s crustal plates triggering earthquakes and tsunamis. In Australia, the experience of natural disasters has come to be seen as part of the national character. But despite these normal processes, Dale Dominey-Howes, associate professor in Natural Disaster Geography at University of Sydney, says many experts now agree that there is no such thing as “natural disasters.”
He cites three key reasons:
- Humanity interfering with the Earth's system. Anthropogenic climate change is adding more energy to the system. This increases the probability of more frequent and intense “hydro-meteorological” hazards such as floods, bushfires, heatwaves and tropical cyclones
- Mismanagement of natural systems. For example, the increased risk of storm surges caused by the removal of mangroves acting as buffering protection on the coast
- Establishment of settlements in areas where natural hazards occur, increasing the risk of harm and loss
According to CSIRO, poor planning is leaving Australia particularly exposed to climate change and massive damage bills. They have warned that the cost to replace buildings exposed to extreme weather could cost Australia more than $1 trillion.
"All evidence suggests that the current trend of increasing disaster costs will continue into the future with a direct impact on Commonwealth expenditure," the CSIRO said. "Climate change is likely to increase this trend in the longer term for many hazards.”
Australia’s multitude of climatic conditions puts it particularly at risk to economic, physical and social loss when it comes to extreme events.
Australia is the driest of all inhabited continents. Punishing droughts have resulted in significant financial losses, personal hardship and environmental damage.
The years 1982–83 saw the culmination of a four-year drought estimated to have cost the economy around $AU7 billion. Agricultural losses, such as the death of livestock, resulted in massive job losses in rural areas.
From 1991 to 1995, average rural production fell by over 10 per cent and rural unemployment rose. The total loss to the economy was estimated at around $A5 billion.
More recently, the Millennium Drought from 2002 to 2007, saw the capacity of the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s most important irrigation region, fall to 17 per cent of capacity.
These long periods of dry, hot weather and natural vegetation that burns easily make Australia particularly vulnerable to bushfires.
During the 1967 Tasmanian fires, 264,270 hectares were burnt in southern Tasmania in just five hours. The worst was the Hobart fire, which saw 62 people die and 1,400 properties destroyed.
The infamous 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria saw an estimated 7,562 people displaced from their homes, while 173 people died and 414 were injured. It was the nation's highest ever loss of life from a bushfire.
Dr Ryan Crompton, chief research officer at Risk Frontiers, a research centre sponsored by the insurance industry to understand natural hazard risks, points to these fires as evidence of poor planning.
“In two of the towns most severely damaged - 25 per cent of destroyed buildings were located physically within the bushland boundary, while sixty per cent were within 10 metres," he said. "Clearly there was high risk in those areas."
The accompanying heatwave – which triggered the blazes – claimed 438 lives. In the week prior to the fires, a run of temperatures over 40 degrees celsius left 18,000 homes in Victoria without electricity as conditions tested the electricity grid.
In Australia, floods are the most expensive type of natural disaster with direct costs estimated over the period from 1967 to 2005 averaging at $377 million per year.
Until recently, the most costly year for floods in Australia was 1974. Damage, in all forms, for New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria was put at $2.9 billion. The estimated costs for the 2011 Queensland flood disaster exceed this figure for the state alone with the damage to local government infrastructure put at $2 billion, and the total damage to public infrastructure between $5 and $6 billion.
Another force of nature that Australia has to contend with is cyclones, particularly Far North Queensland and the Northern Territory.
In 1974, Cyclone Tracey was Australia’s most destructive natural disaster in terms of property damage. 195 millimetres of rain fell in less than nine hours and winds of 250 kilometres per hour flattened Darwin. As a result, 71 people were killed, thousands were injured and 25,000 were left homeless.
The winds of Cyclone Larry in 2006 were actually more ferocious, registered at 290 kilometres per hour. Fortunately there was no loss of life but the damage bill was put at $1.5 billion.
Similar wind speeds were recorded during Cyclone Yasi in 2011. Areas around Tully, Silkwood, Mission Beach, Innisfail and Cardwell bore the brunt of the damage with insurance losses estimated at around $655 million. Roughly 90 per cent of the structures along the main avenue sustained extensive damage.
Townsville's James Cook University Cyclone Testing Centre director David Henderson is researching how to cheaply make these older homes more resilient to disasters.
"We're actually saving a lot of money by mitigating for this damage now as opposed to waiting and fixing it after," he told the ABC.
According to Henderson, it is up to seven times more expensive to repair a property than to protect it in the first place.
Climate Action Tracker, produced by an independent group of scientists, says temperatures are set to rise by about three degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times by 2100. Are the costs to communities set to rise as well?