A Century of Australian Natural Disasters and How to Reduce the Toll from Future Events

Friday, 19 December 2014: 9:45 AM
John McAneney, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW, Australia
This study reviews Australian experience of natural disasters over the last century and considers how to reduce this nation’s vulnerability to such events in the future. In line with global experience, the cost of Australian weather-related natural disasters has been increasing, while loss of life has decreased, with extreme heat events responsible for more fatalities than all other natural perils combined, baring epidemics. However when disaster costs arising from historical events are normalised to current day exposure, no long-term trend emerges. Moreover the frequency of these losses shows no sign of increasing since 1950. In other words, the rising cost of natural disasters can be firmly sheeted home to the fact that there are now more of us living in vulnerable places with more to lose.

In view of the above, emergency management and government risk management and strategic planning should focus on plausible large event scenarios, whatever their cause. If we wish to reduce disaster losses, land-use planning has to become risk-informed and building codes need to consider potential economic impacts, rather than just life safety. Insurers can play a role by pricing risk correctly and sending clear signals to homeowners (and governments) to stimulate risk-reducing behaviours. The tools to achieve fine-grained risk assessments are increasingly available. The success of the regulated use of the building code in tropical cyclone-prone regions in Australia and the performance of modern seismic building codes in New Zealand, shows what can be achieved when there is a demonstrated need and political will.