I could say that the past two years have been extraordinary in Australia with devastating widespread flooding across the north of the country, while further south the tightening effects of a prolonged drought contributed to the worst fire season recorded, a global pandemic, and then floods affecting some of the fire ravaged areas with forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology of more flooding to come as we report this month. It is tempting to say that it has been a couple of years of unprecedented natural disasters. However, that statement is incorrect on a couple of fronts.
Firstly, in the relatively short period that records of droughts and floods have been kept in this country, we have seen comparable events and worse. Research suggests that the worst natural hazards we have recorded are not necessarily the most extreme this country has experienced under similar climatic conditions. Even the global pandemic which we are currently experiencing, and which has been relatively well contained in Australia, is comparable with the Spanish Flu pandemic 100 years ago.
Secondly, to label them as “natural disasters” shifts the blame from human actions to natural processes over which we have no control. In fact, there is a group campaigning for the elimination of the term from our lexicon (https://www.nonaturaldisasters.com/). It aims to change the terminology to show that whilst some hazards are natural and unavoidable, the resulting disasters almost always have been made by human actions and decisions.
Somewhat perversely then, our first societal response to a disaster caused by a natural hazard is to try and control the natural hazard rather than to try and change the human actions that made it a disaster. We try any control what we are least able to control rather than what we are best able to control. Following floods there are calls for more flood mitigation works and, following the recent bushfires, more fire trucks and planes as stated in the NSW Bushfire Inquiry which we report on this month. Collectively, however, we need to rethink where we live and work and how we interact with the environment around us and the extreme fluctuations in weather and associated natural hazards.
This month’s Floodplain Manager reports on a number of initiatives around the world which are attempting to do that. It is also a recommendation from the recent NSW Bushfire Inquiry, but this has been a recommendation from past bushfire and flood inquiries and while progress has been made, the rate of change in our land use planning has been slow.
While at a local level we struggle to try and control natural phenomena which are beyond our control, our actions are changing natural phenomena at a global scale in such a way that these local hazards may become more extreme or more frequent, or both. There are some sobering articles this month on what our flooding future may look like under climate change. Soon we may have many disasters which are genuinely unprecedented but they will not be natural disasters but ones of our own making.