Disaster resilience: preparedness and recovery

Adapt and survive – from hindsight to foresight

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The following article was written by Jeremy Mansfield, Green Cross Australia's head of development, a corporate volunteer and Lend Lease Sustainability Manager - Queensland and NT. It was published on The Fifth Estate on 24 January 2013, and is reproduced here with kind permission.

 

Adapt and survive - from hindsight to foresight

 

Adapt and survive is the mantra of business leaders the world over, though not so commonly in the context of climate adaptation. To respond to climate change the construction industry will need to develop the adaptive capacity to innovate for resilience.

 

As an environmental not-for-profit that empowers Australians to take practical, informed steps to adapt to the changing climate, Green Cross Australia is at the heart of the issue.

 

Buildings and infrastructure must have the resilience to accommodate climate change - this is not just about reducing the impacts of climatic events but how to manage and respond to them. Put simply, ignoring resilience may have a long term detrimental effect on climate change adaptation.

 

Following recent climate events such as the Tasmanian and Victorian bush fires and the Brisbane floods, a series of key questions arose.

 

Are our buildings being adequately designed, delivered and operated? Do they enable a controlled response and provide a flexible and safe adaptation to a crisis or disruption as it unfolds? Will they support a return to normal operations as quickly and efficiently as possible?

 

We face a major dilemma in addressing these questions due to our historical approach to current standards and codes, which emphasise life/safety and meeting minimum standards and assume a constant climate.

 

The Insurance Council of Australia, in a recent submission to the Productivity Commission, outlined that the National Code of Construction "…permits the construction of buildings (at a minimum standard) that include no element of durability (property protection), creating a stock of buildings that whilst 'safe' are increasingly brittle to extreme weather events".

 

Under current code objectives - health, safety, amenity and sustainability - buildings are primarily designed and built to reduce risks to human life, rather than to minimise damage to the building.

 

"While a focus on life preservation is likely to also achieve some degree of protection to the building, 'building durability' is not a primary objective.

 

Building codes in Australia have a history dating back to Federation. The foundation of the codes is drawn from over 100 years of historic climate experience and data. The codes tend to look back to the past to tell us how to build for the future. Likewise, the Australia Building Codes Board has traditionally relied on historical climate and weather data in setting standards.

 

More recently the ABCB used scientifically-based climate change projections in its review of wind standards for construction in cyclone-affected areas. It is, however, early days as no changes to the codes have yet been made that take into account climate change impacts.

 

We need to challenge our current premise that a minimum standard is good enough, as it has worked in the past and is what the 'market' desires. The increasing need to cope with adversity in our climate will make redundant those design decisions based on hindsight.

 

The ABCB's 2012 submission to the Productivity Commission demonstrated that recent extreme events show new buildings have been performing well in preventing structural collapses, but property and content losses could still be considerable. The broadening of the regulators' mandate to include building durability (property protection) will take time given overall impact on the building regulation framework and the role of private sector insurance, along with potential cost impacts to industry.

 

Given that 97 per cent of our buildings are existing stock, how many organisations do a post-disaster audit, rather than just fixing up the obvious damage? We need to be addressing problems that manifest in the future.

 

Due to the non-retrospective nature of building regulation, the National Code of Construction (formally Building Code of Australia) is not applicable to existing buildings, which form the majority of the building stock.

 

Clearly a greater focus will need to be placed on how existing buildings and infrastructure can be made more resilient to the effects of climate change, highlighting the particular challenges in retro-fitting. Clearly, upfront changes in planning and design to address resilience will be cheaper than making changes after infrastructure is built.

 

Inadequacy of current codes in addressing climate change adaptation was also identified in the 2012 Productivity Commission Draft Report on Barriers to Effective Climate Change Adaptation. The report suggests largely that "the market" should handle the issue.

 

"There is a risk that existing regulatory frameworks might "lock in" maladaptive action, which could compromise the short, medium and long-term resilience of our infrastructure. A new approach is needed to ensure that effective responses to climate change are embedded in relevant regulatory frameworks so that our infrastructure and associated services are resilient to climate change as we move into the future. (Productivity Commission Draft Report on Barriers to Effective Climate Change Adaptation 2012.)

 

Insurance companies are themselves adapting to survive in our changing climate. In response to recent extreme weather events, some insurance companies are already withdrawing from "high risk" areas and increasing premiums more generally. For example, house insurance premiums have risen by about 15 per cent per year in the last four years (2009- 2012) compared with annual increases of less than 5 per cent over the previous decade (Insurance Statistics Australia. Updated November 27, 2012)

 

New tools to evaluate resilience levels of housing are also under development by the Insurance Council of Australia and reinsurers are re-evaluating risk frameworks, in light of changing risk.

 

Over time this will flow through to general insurers putting even more pressure on premiums.

 

Lending and investment institutions are also looking for ways to adapt and survive. The Climate Institute's recent Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP) report noted superannuation funds are concerned short-term investors are not taking appropriate account of long- term climate risks in infrastructure investment decisions, thereby establishing conditions for increased vulnerability and reduced life expectancy.

 

In its new report, Coming Ready or Not, The Climate Institute looked at recent research on the physical impacts and flow-on consequences of climate change on major Australian infrastructure assets. The stark findings of this research found the electricity, financial services and road and rail sectors are underprepared. Property is at an early stage of preparation and the water supply sector is relatively advanced.

 

Maintaining the status quo is no longer an option - we have to shift to a new paradigm by proactively adopting a philosophy of best practice and examining how we can improve the continuity, insurability and long-term value of our assets.

 

The upcoming 2013 Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers seminar series will address issues of resilience. Presentations will focus on the increasing need to apply foresight when considering the risk associated to current workplaces and communities.

 

Other issues examined in the seminars will include the increasing demands on buildings and infrastructure needed to withstand increasing extremities of climate, and to return to full operation following a significant event.

 

"It should change the dictum of minimum standards and consider the ability of our infrastructure and our buildings and services to support the communities and occupants they serve and adapt to change."

 

An outcome of the seminar series is to present a call for action, to bring together key stakeholders from the major institutions and governing bodies to form a collaborative action forum.

 

Green Cross Australia chief executive officer Mara Bun says the seminars were an opportunity to realign the present focus from coping with disasters, to a focus on the future.

 

The 2013 Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers seminar series will open engaged discussion on measures that can be taken to gain meaningful levels of resilience in existing and new building stock and infrastructure.

 

It will consider key issues such as location and access of key building services, adequacy of redundancy and future availability and reliability of infrastructure, insurers' attitudes to risk, building resilience and future claims, issues uncovered in diligence surveys of buildings that lead to building failure and risk associated with not informing stakeholders of known building resilience weaknesses.

 

I will lead a series of property sector half-day seminars across Australia and New Zealand in March and April.

 

They will be supported by experts from the insurance and building services industries, the team will discuss a range of issues that now present real challenges to the industry's ability to deal with climate related events and why business as usual approaches are no longer acceptable.

 

The seminars will be held in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Wellington and Christchurch during March and April 2013. Details here.

 

Jeremy Mansfield is Green Cross Australia's head of development, a corporate volunteer and Lend Lease Sustainability Manager - Queensland and NT.

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