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As we have interacted with those working in the emergency management sector, we have heard it repeatedly, ‘bushfires receive disproportional attention compared with other hazards based on their impact.’

Indeed, bushfires do seem to gather strong interest in our communities, — if our tv screens, social media and newspaper articles are reflecting us right.

Based on the outcry of those working in areas apart from bushfire, it came to me as a surprise to learn that bushfires have costed South Australia double that of any other hazard in insured costs, over the last 40 years. This is some data from the recently release draft productivity commission report on natural disaster funding:

Insurance losses (1970-2013)
Bushfire Cyclone Flood Storm Hail Earthquake
$189m $47m $92m
– Nil or rounded to zero

I’m still thinking about the second question, but as to the first, when we look at insured losses across the entire nation, all hazards have caused greater losses than bushfires, apart from earthquakes:So are the community, politicians and media right in placing so much attention to bushfires, as opposed to other hazards? And is there something about fires and losses from fires that are not captured in loss statistics that makes them more worthy of our attention?

Insurance losses (1970-2013)
Bushfire Cyclone Flood Storm Hail Earthquake
$3,002m $5,379m $5,192m $7,874m $6,277m $1,671m
– Nil or rounded to zero

 

References:

Productivity Commission 2014, Natural Disaster Funding Arrangements, Draft Inquiry Report, Canberra. (page 5)

 

 

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Recently, I was chatting with Prof. Graeme Dandy about insurance as a mitigation option. In this conversation, the point was made that insurance only redistributes the costs of disasters over time and across a greater population. In fact, insurance actually increases the cost of disasters, as insurance companies need to ensure their profitability.

Therefore, insurance only reduces the impact for those that have insurance and are exposed to a natural hazard, yet actually increases the impact of natural hazards across the entire system.

But is this analysis too shallow?

Insurance can also modify behaviour. If insurance premiums are calculated based on the risk that policy holders are exposed to, then this will create incentive to not develop in risky areas. In addition, this would encourage landowners to reduce their exposure in an attempt to lower their insurance premium. It is important, therefore, that insurance premiums match risk.

However, people can be fairly unwilling to purchase insurance against natural hazards (Burby, 1998). In addition, policy holders are not normally conditioned to reduce exposure on purchasing insurance, and are generally not rewarded by reduced premiums when they do. Therefore, insurance can induce unhelpful signals by giving incentive to building in hazard-prone areas when premiums are not appropriately calculated according to risk.

Often, governments provide, what is, in effect, insurance (although often not labelled as such). After disasters, governments are often called to help the rebuild process, through relief payments. This favours the community and favours politicians’ approval ratings. Unfortunately, the ‘premiums’ that finance such recovery payments are ‘tax’, which are not paid in proportion to risk. Therefore, this also sends unhelpful signals, even if governments do not need to make profit.

 

Burby, R.J., 1998. Cooperating with Nature : Confronting Natural Hazards with Land Use Planning for Sustainable Communities. Joseph Henry Press, Washington, D.C.

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Different mitigation activities are implemented at different scales.  For example, raising flood levees, changing transport networks, siting residential/commercial/industrial developments, etc. have strong impacts on the local communities they impact, and these decisions need to be made at least in consultation with local communities, but preferentially by local communities. On the other hand, mitigation actives involving building/design codes would generally be done at a larger scale. In Australia, building codes are developed nationally, although implemented and regulated at state level (although, I am under the impression that local council interacts with these through development consent applications).

Clearly, there are (at least) three levels in which mitigation activities are (or should ideally be) chosen on in Australia. Firstly, there are national mitigation activities, which would normally involve policy and monetary support. State government would normally be involved in coordinating statewide mitigation efforts, such as building codes, and giving directives for local land use planning. Local communities are involved through developing land use plans.

But this multi-level decision making causes difficulty for developing decision support systems.

It is difficult to incorporate community values when developing a decision support system across the entire state (or in our case, the part of the state that houses a large majority of the population). This is because values are community dependant and require much consultation to elucidate.

However, incorporating local-level mitigation options is necessary for coordinating statewide effort, as benefit at the state level is the sum of all mitigation activities (including those at the local level)

 

Perhaps interconnected decision support systems developed for both local government and statewide applications is the ideal.

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I am currently conducting a literature review on natural hazard decision support systems. For this, we need conceptual frameworks to classify the literature in order to describe research trends and gaps. In regard to this, natural hazard decision support systems could also be classified according to the phase of the disaster management cycle to which […]

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It has been stated that losses from natural disasters are inceasing due to two factors. Firstly, climate change is increasing the frequency of natural disasters. Secondly, populations and investments are being concentrated in vulnerable locations causing larger magnitude of losses. For example, in a recently published Sydney Morning Herald article (Flirting with disaster), it was […]

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Recently, CSIRO and Australia’s Attorney-Generals department hosted an ambitious one-day workshop. Yes, in one day we were to solve what research gaps needed filling to achieve the vision we had for disaster mitigation in Australia in 2030 [ Was this a chance for CSIRO to obtain research funds from the Attorney-Generals department to address these […]

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We have received significant funding to develop something called a DSS? Why would we obtain this? A DSS is a decision support system. As the name suggests, these are systems (generally software), that support decision makers in making very challenging decisions. It is widely recognised that decisions regarding where to invest in reducing losses from […]

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