Bushfires have been the most common natural disaster in New South Wales over the past decade, according to a study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports.
The study, the first of its kind, looked at disaster declarations in local government areas (LGAs). Identified were 207 disasters that affected the state between 2004 and 2014. Bushfires were the most common, responsible for 108 disaster declarations, followed by storms (55) and floods (44).
By looking at where disasters were declared, the study identified a “hotspot” in northern New South Wales, which includes some of the state’s most disadvantaged communities.
There’s nothing natural about a disaster
Disasters are a regular part of life for communities across the globe. So far in 2016, disasters have cost US$71 billion and claimed some 6,000 lives. Globally, the number and cost of disasters is rising.
Australia has a long history of natural disasters, from catastrophic bushfires to flooding rains. Many people are asking whether such disasters are becoming more frequent, and what we can do to better prevent and prepare for them.
Despite the way we talk about them, fires, floods and storms are not inherently natural disasters. Though they may threaten social systems or the environment, they are more accurately classified as natural hazards.
A disaster occurs when a natural hazard overwhelms a social system’s capacity to cope and respond. Instead, disasters require many agencies and a coordinated response. Many factors such as vulnerability, resilience and population density influence a how a community copes with hazards.
What types of disasters are most common in NSW?
Using data onlocal government areas (LGAs) involved in Natural Disaster Declarations the study examined three types of sudden hazards – bushfires, floods and storms and found that LGAs in New South Wales were involved in disaster declarations on 905 separate occasions.
Across the state, 27 LGAs experienced no disaster declarations. All of these were located within the Greater Metropolitan Region around Sydney. The highest numbers of disasters declared were in Clarence Valley (21), Richmond Valley (16), Narrabri (15) and Nambucca (15).
While bushfires were the most commonly occurring type of disaster event, floods affected the highest number of LGAs. Bushfire and storm disasters were most common in 2012-13, and floods in 2010-11. By analysing the data, the study found a cluster or hotspot in the state’s north east. LGAs here were much more frequently involved in disaster declarations than elsewhere.
What can we do?
The overlap of disadvantage and disaster declarations presents a challenge to communities, disaster managers and governments. Increased funding to address social disadvantage in these communities may increase resilience to natural hazards, preventing them from becoming disasters.
Even Sydney, where all of the LGAs with no disasters were found, shouldn’t become complacent. Areas with less experience of hazards have lower awareness of the risks, and respond less effectively as a result. So even though metropolitan areas are typically better off, if a disaster were to occur, the population here would likely be less prepared to cope with the impacts.
Community outreach and education programs may help increase general awareness of the risks and help communities become better prepared. Similarly, more training and deploying emergency services personnel to disasters elsewhere could help gain insight and experiences which can be brought home.
The 2011 Queensland floods demonstrated the need for better education, risk communication and community awareness.
With flood disasters the most widespread across NSW, it would be prudent to focus on educating communities about floods to increase resilience and help them cope. Increasing resources for the State Emergency Service will also allow for more effective planning, mitigation and response strategies to be developed and implemented.
The damage bill from recent flooding across NSW topped A$500 million. The Bureau of Meteorology has predicted an above-average 2016-17 cyclone season. It is an apt time to pause and reflect on what drives people’s understanding of disaster risk and community resilience.