When eight-metre waves crashed into beachfront properties in the northern Sydney waterfront suburbs of Collaroy and Narrabeen last June and images of washed away backyards and one collapsed swimming pool were beamed around the nation, the power of nature was on full display.

Also laid bare was the need to ensure that our built environment within coastal areas was as resilient as possible with respect to risks which may occur. This includes risks which may occur through rain, storm surge, waves, cyclones, erosion, sea level rise or a combination of these.

Legally, this is creating nightmares. According to a recent post on realcommercial.com.au from Slater and Gordon’s Robert Kern, those selling property are forced to disclose flood information in New South Wales but not in other states, leaving purchasers in these states to operate largely on a ‘buyer beware’ basis with respect to coastal risk. Local councils, too, are subject to inconsistent and often unclear rules and face considerable levels of uncertainty with regard to their responsibilities and potential areas of legal exposure.

Given this, it is timely to look at what needs to be done, where responsibilities should lie and whether or not Australia is performing as well as it could be in this area.

On the last point, commentators agree that efforts have been lacking.

“If you go up to Queensland, you can see people who are taking what is basically a house on stilts with a main living area which is three metres or so above the ground and are pouring a slab, filling them in and giving themselves another floor downstairs,” said Dr Karl Mallon, a director of science and systems at climate risk advisory group Climate Risk.

“The situation is that they have made what was a flood proof house into a highly flood vulnerable house. We’ve still got a lot of stuff going on that is not facing up to the problem that we can’t keep giving people planning rights to create properties in high risk zones.”

Kate Mackenzie, an investment and governance manager at The Climate Institute, agrees – adding that efforts are particularly lacking with regard to the reinforcement and protection of established building stock.

“Some places are may be better prepared in terms of their planning procedures,” Mackenzie said. “However, I’m not sure that existing exposed building stock is being addressed anywhere.”

According to Mallon, questions surround not only our level of preparedness for conditions we can expect today but also for those which we need to be anticipating going forward. Even leaving aside climate change and sea level rise, he says there are further causes for concern.

For one thing, current academic analysis of historical and geological records suggests that much of the building upon the east coast of Australia has taken place throughout a relatively benign period. Furthermore, much of the building which has happened has in fact taken place during a period of relatively high build-up of the coastline (coastlines shift inward and outward). Look over much of the last thousand years, Mallon says, and the land on which Collaroy and Narrabeen now sit was not there.

Mallon says there have been several problems with the way Australia has approached this problem in the past. Whilst there was a requirement for people to build a house which is supposed to last around 100 years, he said there was no requirement for people to build it in order to withstand likely hazards which it might be forced to endure over that time. Building was also often being done on the basis of historical flood data from periods such as the 1990s which was no longer relevant. Mallon says this has created opportunities for developers to build and offload stock quickly, leaving subsequent buyers holding a lemon.

In terms of risks going forward, Mallon says it is not only individual dangers (storm surge, flooding, cyclones, erosion rising sea levels) which need to be considered but rather a range of them in combination with a multitude of factors such of tidal data, waves, storm surge and sea level rise. Whereas engineers had not been given clear information about the range of hazards and risk tolerance levels from which to build in the past, he says scientists nowadays are doing a better job at providing the profession with greater clarity in this regard. His own firm, for instance, is in the process of developing software which would indicate wind speeds and storm surge levels with which designs would have to cope for a given area.

Finally, Mallon says, approaches toward sea level rises are important. Whereas it might be tempting to look at average levels of expected increase, he says this approach does not account for what happens in the event of a severe storm or sea level surge. Rather, he says, a worst-case scenario should be adopted and assumptions and planning should be built around that.

Mackenzie, meanwhile, says a significant problem revolves around a lack of coordination with regard to the approach adopted across the country. Whilst rules in this area are made by the states, these not only vary from state to state but in many cases are unclear. As a result, she said, coastal councils across the nation are uncertain as to the extent of their responsibilities, who should make decisions and how these should be made, as well as who is responsible for future losses which may arise. In some states, levels of sea rise which they should be factoring in are not even specified, she says.

Other commentators agree that current approaches are inadequate. Doug Lord, principal of coastal, estuarine and port engineering consultancy Coastal Environment, acknowledged that much had been done to restrict damage caused by erosion. He noted, however, that Australia has generally placed excessive reliance on historic data rather than expectations going forward with regard to sea level rise and has been too heavily reliant upon emergency response as opposed to forward planning. Planning and development decisions in vulnerable locations are a mess, he says, with our current titling system failing to facilitate any form of future change in terms of land use and zoning as many of our current uses become unviable in these locations.

In terms of what can be done, Mackenzie says greater clarity with regard to authority and responsibility is needed and that the federal government should work with the states to develop a framework which outlines consistent principles in this area.

As to what councils can do, Mallon says the primary focus should revolve around classic protection areas such as drainage, seawalls, flood proof roads and bridges. He says councils should take note of trees which are planted near roads and in public places and ensure that species which are selected are reasonably hardy when it comes to matters such as gale force winds. During Collaroy, for example, a major cause of road closure and infrastructure damage was in fact due to fallen trees, he says.

Opinions differ on who should take responsibility. With decisions surrounding land releases and land use lying within their control, Lord says state and local governments should bear considerable levels of responsibility, and should contribute in a meaningful way toward costs associated with necessary prevention and adaption measures. Individuals who purchase property which lies within suitably zoned land, he says, should have a right to use the land in question for that purpose and should not have responsibility for individual impacts sheathed upon them, he says.

Mallon, on the other hand, says purchasers should largely be responsible for conducting their own assessment with regard to risk and assuming the consequences.  He says specialist consultants and engineers can be engaged to assess risk if necessary, and from then on prospective buyers can make informed choices. Indeed, Mallon says, more robust assessments on the part of prospective purchasers would place upward and welcome pressure upon existing residents to look at measures which may enhance the protection of their properties and subsequently for local councils to look at what they also could be doing.

“I think we’ve got to stop assuming that the nanny state is looking out for us, Mallon said. “The evidence is that it is not and we know how to do this stuff.

“It’s just another risk that you’ve got to manage and you’ve got to manage it with information.”