Natural disasters be they earthquakes, tsunamis or bush fires kill scores, sometimes thousands of people.

When disasters occur, they often expose the deficiencies in regulations. The Victorian bush fires in 2009 took the lives of 173 Victorians. The Christchurch earthquake in 2011 killed 185 New Zealanders.

The roof collapse in a supermarket in Latvia that caused more than 50 deaths in 2013 was due to a deteriorating building regulatory regime. The national building inspectorate had been disbanded due to post-GFC austerity measures. This contributed to the compromising of building control best practice. Such was the strength of public disillusionment the then Prime Minister resigned.

In all three cases, post-disaster reflection culminated in much policy navel gazing and the recognition of elements of building regulations and building codes that were passé.

Tragedy becomes a catalyst for regulatory review, and there is a certain bespoke vernacular for this: "crisis-knee jerk reaction reform." The cynical lament that if you want to fix up redundant regulations, you need a bloody good crisis sadly rings all too true. The term "bloody" by the way, in this context is not entirely metaphorical, for it is rivers of blood that all too often are the agents for change as they galvanise politicians into action. Ebola is case in point, thousands of lives were lost before vaccination programs were accelerated.

So how can regulations be designed to minimise death when natural disasters chance upon the unsuspecting and the unprepared? I have a number of suggestions.

Model International Best Practice Codes

Model international best practice codes need to be developed that can be adopted by countries or regions intent on minimising disaster induced casualties. The codes need to be fashioned by a coalescence of the willing - coalitions of international experts funded by government, NGOs and the private sector. As most countries have governmental departments that assume responsibility for the development, implementation and the maintenance of building regulation, they must form part of the multi-jurisdictional matrix. Such departments should nominate representatives who can participate in the development of international disaster risk management protocols, codes and regimes.

Such coalitions need to enjoy a measure of perpetuity but must not harbour the promise of permanent and large bureaucratisation.  Small secretariats like the Centre for Best Practice Building Control could coordinate and arrange regular forums of enlightened best practice disaster minimisation intellectuals would be preferable.

Universal definitions of disaster have to be agreed upon, be they tsunamis, flooding, earthquakes, diseases such as ebola or bush fires. Regard must be had to the fact that the definitions need to be relevant to a changing planet and the emergence of new disaster permutations and iterations.

“Linkaging” Between Civil Servants and Disaster Containment Experts

There must be much better connectivity between civil servant regulators in term of their R and D linkages with disaster specialists and disaster management knowledge tsars. Some of these experts are attached to universities, some in the private sector, some are in government, but ad hoc and intermittent or opaque collaborations need  be evolved into better integrated coalitions and a momentum of best practice endeavour then then needs to ensue. This way the regulator can keep in touch with the "best practice disaster containment tsars" is to ensure that regulation remains relevant to scenarios that are pending rather than actualities that have occurred; the regulator can have an eye for the "perils on the radar." The pre-emptive approach will provide a much greater humanitarian dividend than the approach where one waits fatalistically for a crises to materialise to provide the catalyst for law reform.

The current practice where the development and proclamation of enlightened regulation is corralled within sovereign boundaries must be questioned. A globalised world requires global solutions because regardless of whether bush fires for instance occur in the likes of Australia, California or the Savannah lands of Africa, there are universally recognised climatic phenomena that cause them. It follows that there will be common solutions that can be fed into best practice regulations to deal with this sort of maelstrom.

So if there are best practice model international guidelines or codes,  then sovereign Acts of Parliament can promulgate those international model codes to deliver the full force of the law. This will facilitate much greater trans-regional regulatory harmonisation and will bode well for sovereign "bean counters" in federal treasury departments who, rather than allocating budget for personnel to reinvent the wheel in resource constrained environments, can instead opt to use best practice international models.

Recognition that Model Regulations for the Developing World May Differ to those of Developed Economies

The codes and the regulations will need to have regard to holistic considerations. The regulations must be usable, they cannot simply be monuments to unattainable and unworkable best practice guidelines. Regard must be had to the notion that although the factors that cause disasters may have the same climatic or seismic drivers, depending upon the resource and logistical constraints of given countries, best practice regulations for the first world countries may not be relevant in the practical sense to the developing world. It follows that there may be two sets of best practice model regulations - those for the developing world and those for the developed world. It would be naïve to think that Mali for instance could promulgate the likes of an Australian Building Act and Building Code, absent the profoundly different hinterland of Australian policing, civil service, infrastructure, probity and corporate governance regimes.

The Establishment of a Uniform Law Reform Methodology

Those tasked with the responsibility of generating model codes and regulations, be they tsunami codes, earthquake codes or bush fire codes would be well advised to develop a uniform law reform methodology, a scientific method if you will. When I had carriage of major law reform initiatives in the antipodes, the below law reform method was used:

  • Comparative analyses and debate of best practice codes and approaches to deal with likely scenarios
  • Think tanking, brainstorming and "whiteboarding," and the synthesis of that which is most enlightened but by the same token feasible culturally, economically and logistically
  • The distillation of the above ideas and recommendations into regulatory drafting instructions complemented by rationale for regulation
  • The drafting of the model regulations and codes and this task would need to be carried out by lawyers experienced in legislative drafting
  • The model provisions would then revert back to members of the coalition for vetting, editing, honing and improvement.
  • The model codes and regulations would then be published and made available to the international community for jurisdictional or regional  adoption be they advanced be they developing.

I present these suggestions with the intention of provoking thoughts, ideas and engagement. If you wish to contribute to this discussion, kindly drop a comment below.

  • I totally agree with the premises put forward in this article, including two radical ideas: 1) An inclusive transparent process that is not locked up behind government silos. and 2) A rational approach to synthesizing many ideas and approaches to a testable Best Practice reference, which can be constantly improved through a collaborative development discipline.

  • Hi Kim
    I agree with your philosophy on the development of international standards to prepare and plan for natural disasters on the world stage. I think the idea of looking towards the future and not focusing on the past is sensible. The question I have is how do you get the many governments to agree on a unified process?

  • This focuses on the wrong stuff! We just shouldn't be building in some places rather than trying to develop "bullet proof" regulations that will allow us to continue to build just anywhere.

  • Kim is spot on. I am not sure Tom can discount what is presented here on the basis that some places should just not have buildings. If the changing patterns of climate and ferocity are indicators, construction globally will need to adopt some serious new thinking. Kim Lovegrove makes serious points.
    This conversation is especially relevant as international consortia some who have never worked together take on large complex projects – even in our home towns. The conversation is equally relevant as construction components are shipped across the world these days carrying with them all of the complexities of differing standards, variable certification and accountability.
    Insurers, legislators and the community as a whole should be keen to see this subject get a wider airing.

  • I work in Building Control in England UK and it seems to me the system we have here is fairly robust and readily transferrable to other States. The Regulations themselves are a series of functional requirements for achieving minimum standards in regard to a number of areas of the construction backed up by Approved Documents which provide guidance (these could be region /country specific) on top of this there are alternative approaches possible utilising British / EN standards; or indeed any other standard (NFPA for example)/ manufacturers guidance etc that you can convince the Building Regulatory body is appropriate to meet the functional requirement.
    An international framework could set out wider functional requirements than the current UK system and individual states could elect to pick appropriate Regulations for their own part of the world, model guidance could be developed that is region / country specific.
    Not sure of all the other systems across the world, and there may be better ones but am sure that there is no need to re invent the wheel.

    • No need to reinvent the wheel indeed but as the article points out there need to be 2 regulatory prototypes. One for the developed world and one for the developing world; for above mentioned reasons developed world regulations don't readily migrate to developing countries on account of the profoundly different geo/political/socioeconomic paradigms and contexts. A prototype or template for developing countries is far more challenging and needs the right sort of coalition of expert participants and this is very much the preoccupation and part of the raison d`etre of the Centre for Best Practice Building Control i.e. to facilitate these types of coalitions. The Centre was able to get a group of international experts together to develop a model building standard for the construction of ebola health care facilities albeit on a pro-bono basis. If one googles ebola building standard that is the only ebola building standard the comes up; has published 2 articles on point.The CBPBC will continue to agitate for model standards and model codes, but back to your point the English system of building control has a lot to admire about it Sir.

  • "A globalised world requires global solutions" is put forward brilliantly i recognising that any model framework of international regulations must also account for the position of developing countries. This is crucial in times when developing countries do not have the luxury of a solid governmental spine that most developed countries like Australia and the UK have in comparison. The best practice codes must be workable in a practical sense, so that the developing world is also able to take advantage of the opportunity to recoup when disasters strike.

    • Happy to make contact Martin, will indeed send you an email, thank you for contacting me via this commentary stream. If you google my name above you will find Martin, that I have published a number of articles in sourceable that concern best practice building control; indeed one of your colleagues Martin Burns at RICS and I are in regular communication & will be collaborating on a particular initiative. Feel free to share & comment on some of the other sourceable articles that I have penned on best practice building control. Another article I penned for sourceable will be published tomorrow which deals with how one develops model legislation for developing countries. The piece advocates regional adoption of model regulations rather than "top down" or central government driven approaches to sovereign building control. It advocates the idea that building control must be locally achievable rather than "there on paper but not in reality". Please feel free to share this piece to elicit further comment from your colleagues

    • Kim

      Good article and thought provoking. having worked in a number of jurisdictions around the world I can see the underlying logic of developing model codes based on whether the country is developed or not.

      Although I am not sure life is that clear cut and I am pretty sure you will already know this from your work/experience.

      Fundamentally though I don't disagree with your premise, be interested in taking part in any discussions or forum,