Natural hazards and emergency events are inevitable in our modern world. The disasters that may result, and their causes and effects, are both complex and interconnected throughout society. For example, our growing and ageing population, and our increasing exposure and vulnerability to intensifying natural hazards, is in part leading to a higher likelihood and potential for loss and harm. The resulting cost to our society and economy from disasters is growing and becoming unsustainable.
The systemic nature of disaster risk
For the most part, our existing lifestyles and daily activities are heavily dependent on interconnected systems for the delivery of essential services when we need them (e.g. energy, water, food, health and education services, transport, and communications). These systems reflect a chain of accumulated decisions and choices made over generations, in different circumstances and with different priorities. These decisions have led to the safe and prosperous nation that we love and enjoy today.
It is important to note that natural hazards only lead to ‘disaster’ if they intersect with an exposed and vulnerable society (interrupting these systems) and when the consequences exceed people’s capacity to cope. Such vulnerability is, in part, the result of the conscious and unconscious decisions that have been made and continue to be made about where and how we live our lives, where and how we build our homes and communities, and the placement and effectiveness of the critical infrastructure that supports them.
Australia has a long history of being exposed to many natural hazard events and to date has been able
to cope. In the face of some natural hazards and extreme weather events intensifying, a more mature understanding of the root causes and effects of disaster risk and systemic vulnerability is needed, so that our efforts to mitigate the risk and build resilience can meet the challenges of the future.
What we value
Understanding the things we value, and the tensions and trade-offs between them, can provide insights about prioritising disaster risk reduction efforts and can assist us to better prepare. People hold different values and can, and often do, prioritise them differently. This can create tensions across society about how we think, decide and act. Usually we assign value unconsciously and we may only realise what we value when that is in jeopardy. We all value the services and processes in society that keep us safe and prospering, even if we take them for granted during times of stability. Insights like these, provided by this work will help us to understand the values that are in tension when choices have to be made about where to allocate finite time, effort and money in disaster risk reduction efforts – j
Our purpose and challenge
Reducing vulnerability across our systems is possible. Policies and behaviours to reduce the likelihood or consequence of disasters need to focus on the root causes and effects of vulnerability. Collaboration and coordination is needed between multiple and diverse stakeholders across jurisdictions and socio- economic sectors to be able to develop our understanding of these systemic causes and effects, and what can or should be done to mitigate them. This will often require rethinking existing objectives and addressing gaps or misalignments in existing mandates, roles and responsibilities.
The purpose of this work is to advance our understanding of and approach to assessing disaster risk. Rethinking disaster risk and vulnerability in this context begins to address the least understood dimensions of disaster risk – vulnerability and capacity to cope.
This report, Pro ling Australia’s Vulnerability: The interconnected causes and cascading effects of systemic disaster risk, along with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) technical reports that document the evidence base, provides a different, emergent logic to underpin novel, reframed approaches and narratives.
Over time the insights gained will be complemented with other mechanisms, tools and resources
to help people practically use this work to diagnose causes and effects of vulnerability and to develop effective mitigation strategies. These resources can then guide people safely through uncertainty to arrive at options to effectively address disaster risk and to support the nation to be better prepared and more resilient.