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As disaster strikes again, an urgent call to step up planning and preparation efforts

Introduction by Croakey: At least four people have died in Aotearoa/New Zealand, where authorities have declared a State of Emergency and the country faces a massive, long-term recovery following the devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle.

Residents in parts of the North Island endured their second major storm in as many weeks, after record rains last month triggered flash floods in Auckland and another four people lost their lives then.

The Guardian reports that Climate Minister James Shaw expressed sorrow and anger about the “lost decades that we spent bickering and arguing about whether climate change was real or not, whether it was caused by humans or not, whether it was bad or not, whether we should do something about it or not, because it is clearly here now, and if we do not act, it will get worse.”

Quoting Winston Churchill, he said: “The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres told the UN Security Council in New York this week that rising sea levels are a threat multiplier that will disrupt and destabilise global societies unless there is an organised international response.

“Mega-cities on every continent will face serious impacts including Cairo, Lagos, Maputo, Bangkok, Dhaka, Jakarta, Mumbai, Shanghai, Copenhagen, London, Los Angeles, New York, Buenos Aires and Santiago,” Guterres said, as the security council met at the ministerial level to discuss the implications of rising sea levels for international peace and security.

Inside Climate News reported that the danger is most acute for about 900 million people living in low-lying coastal zones – or about one out of 10 people on earth.

“We would witness a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale,” Guterres said. “And we would see ever-fiercer competition for fresh water, land and other resources. The impact of rising seas is already creating new sources of instability and conflict.”

Below is a timely call from an emergency medicine physician, Dr Lai Heng Foong, for Australia to urgently lift disaster planning and response capabilities and to invest in building community resilience to disasters as they become more frequent and intense. It comes as much of Australia faces heatwave warnings.


Lai Heng Foong writes:

For many, a disaster conjures up images of a tsunami, large bushfires, or floods like the scale of those in Lismore, Bangladesh or, as we are now witnessing, in Aotearoa/New Zealand.  These are visually impactful images of disasters, all too familiar when we live on a 24-hour media cycle.

But what if you woke up one day and the weather warning says it will be 45 degrees Celsius and everyone is told to stay home? What if you had promised your child you would bring her to the beach during the school holidays?

You only have one day off as you are working overtime to repair the damage to your home from the floods a few months before and both of you were looking forward to relaxing by the beach. Thousands of families would have made plans like these and be unable to follow through with it due to weather restrictions. This is not a dreamed-up scenario. This has already happened in Sydney, and elsewhere around the world

On another school holiday day, you wanted to make a salad with your teenage daughter. However, due to floods in Queensland, lettuce is now $15/head and parsley $8 a bunch. Your household budget can’t afford this salad at a time of increasing cost of living pressures. Again, this scenario has already happened, recently in July 2022.

This is the reality of climate change. We tend to associate climate change with disasters like the 2020 bushfires that destroyed homes, habitat, infrastructure and caused many deaths, both directly and indirectly, and with ongoing mental and physical health impacts.

However, many people are less conscious of the other impacts that are also happening – the small or less obvious “disasters” in your household that can make it much more stressful to live your life.

Bushfires in 2020 caused widespread air pollution such that kids living hundreds of kilometres away could not go to school. Pregnant women avoided going out due to avoid the risk of harm.

Woeful

Australia is woefully unprepared for extreme natural disasters. We can just witness the tragedy that unfolded in Lismore where they have had five “one-in-35 years” events in the last 60 years to see that we need better planning and disaster preparedness to adapt and mitigate these extreme events.

As a disaster expert, I know that we need to address this from both mitigation and adaptation perspectives. We need to demand that our governments transition to renewable energy now, and stop our reliance on fossil fuels.

I am also advocating for better disaster preparedness, not only at a state or federal governmental level, but also for community resilience training.

The field of disaster management arena has pivoted from ‘Disaster response’ to ‘Disaster risk reduction’ in the last decade, with a focus on hazards, community impact and building resilience. While Australia has been excellent at responding to disaster, in the new era of climate change, disasters will be happening at such increased frequency and severity that just responding to them will not be enough.

In order for people and communities to be better prepared to face incoming disasters they need to build their own resilience in the face of increasing risk. They can do this by having regular training in their community conducted by the State Emergency Service or Federal agencies.

We should celebrate the establishment of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), something that disaster experts have been urging for years. There is an urgent need for improved coordination between Federal and State Emergency Management agencies and a focus on building community resilience for disaster preparedness.

Prepare now

Communities that will be affected by disasters are ill prepared for both managing risks, responding and recovering from those that afflict their homes and loved ones.

This is particularly pronounced for communities who are already further removed from mainstream government outreach, including culturally and linguistically diverse communities, who are largely concentrated in extreme heat prone geographic regions, as well as other at risk communities such as farming communities and regional flood prone areas.

There is a vacuum in proactive community resilience building in disaster preparedness where communities have the knowledge, strategies and community acknowledged protocols in places as both a preventive and management approach to dealing with disaster.

We need to fill this gap rapidly, as disasters are a risk multiplier for social, economic and health threats. With rapid improvement in Information Technology, we can be better prepared with digitised maps, open-source data system and can set up early warning systems without huge expenditure.

The business and financial communities have already recognised the massive risk due to the risk multiplication effect of climate change and have put in place risk mitigation strategies.

It is time that the healthcare sector (which includes disaster preparedness) and, more importantly, the community rally together to strengthen our response to disasters by collaborating together and building our community connections.

Food insecurity, water shortages, and unsafe homes are already part of our reality. We need to start getting used to these mini “disasters” in life, for one day they will coalesce to become one big disaster of epic proportions.

Chance favours the prepared mind, as the saying goes, and we need to prepare now.

Author details

Dr Lai Heng Foong is an Emergency Physician based in Sydney who has a passion for Public Health and Disaster preparedness including COVID-19 preparedness, Climate change and health impacts, Indigenous Health and the social determinants of health. She is currently the Chair of the Public Health and Disaster Committee of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, and a member of the Multi College Climate Change and Health Project of the Royal Australasian College for Physicians. She is a Better Futures Ambassador. Through the Doctors for the Environment (DEA) she has been involved in multi-college collaboration and teaching and working on climate action at various levels of society.


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