15 Nov 2019

Australia enters era of disaster: bushfires and drought

From Nine To Noon, 9:09 am on 15 November 2019

Given the devastation and the geographical spread of bush fires in New South Wales and Queensland this week, a risk reduction expert has warned that Australia needs to prepare for ongoing disasters.

Lives have been lost and homes destroyed and for the first time a 'catastrophic' danger warning was declared for greater Sydney. Robert Glasser is the former head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and he's now with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Australian bushfires

Australian bushfires Photo: All pictures courtesy of AFP

Given the devastation and the geographical spread of bush fires in New South Wales and Queensland to this week, a risk reduction expert has warned that Australia needs to prepare for an era of disaster.

For the first time, a catastrophic danger has been declared for Greater Sydney and there are around 60 fires burning in New South Wales alone and elevated fire dangerous across the country, with Queensland and Western Australia at high risk.

Four people have died this week, in excess of 200 homes have been destroyed, and more than 1500 firefighters have been mobilised.

Prof Glasser is the former head of the UN Office for disaster risk reduction and he's now with the Australian strategic Policy Institute.

Earlier this year he prepared a special report looking comprehensively at the risks facing security in Australia concluded that a new period of disastrous consequences has dawned with the effects of climate change, and the resulting increase in concurrent extreme weather events, with communities in danger of becoming overwhelmed by the frequency and severity of events.

“This week's fires are a case in point, with the fire season beginning months earlier than usual this year, fuelled by increasingly hot dry weather and conditions.

“We absolutely do need to face up to what the realities are because if we don't do that, we will be trapped in an endless cycle of responding to ever worsening events rather than getting out ahead of them by reducing exposure and vulnerability,” Prof Glasser says.

The devastating fires of this week will be a permanent feature of Australian life, he says.

“The science is very clear about this, including Australia's own scientific assessment that we've completed a couple of years ago, in which the scientists are very confident that climate change will not just increase the length of the fire season, but also the number of days where there is extreme fire weather.”

The warming that has made the Australian landscape tinder-dry will only worsen, he says.

“We're already committed to probably more than 1.5 degrees of warming, which is the lower limit set in the Paris Climate Agreement. The reason for that is there's an inertia in the climate system.

“Even if today we stopped producing all greenhouse gases all across the world, every factory, every automobile, the climate would continue to warm to very close to 1.5 degrees, just because of what has already been released previously.

“So, we're on track to 1.5 probably 2 degrees. What we're talking about today is how do we prevent 3 and 4 degrees of warming.”

Australia needs to prepare and adapt to this new reality, he says.

“The very real realities are that Australia is continuing to build and settle in areas that are at high risk of exposure to these events.

“In Australia, something like 11 percent of our GDP and over almost 10 percent of our population is based in areas that are exposed to severe or serious bushfire risk.

“If you look at Cyclone risk, 20 percent of our GDP and about 4 million people are in areas which are highly exposed to the existing cyclone risk, let alone the way that risk will amplify under climate change.”

There is some evidence the Australian government is moving in this direction, Prof Glasser says with $5 billion allocated for future drought relief.

“It's a very useful contribution, except that next year, if the drought continues, there will be political demands for further action. And so we really need to take a step back, take a more strategic look at how our environment is changing, and begin focusing on prevention, on zoning and ensuring that people aren't settling, we're not building new buildings these exposed areas.”

Buybacks of property and money to help farmers change occupation should all be part of the mix, he says because some areas will just be untenable for human habitation.

“Australia has always had droughts and fire. What we're seeing now is those hazards appearing on unprecedented scales.”

Australia simply won’t be able to fight the fires on the scale seen this week, he says.

“We used to have a fire season in which the northern states, once their fire season ended, could send their equipment to the states in the south to help out.

“Now with a fire season potentially becoming a year-round phenomena, that option won't exist.

“We will have firefighters who will be exhausted because the number of fires and the length of the season will have the limited opportunities for fire prevention measures like burn backs, because there will be fewer days where it will be safe to do that.”

And the changing climate is making Australia much more prone to cyclones and flooding - the terrible floods Cyclone Owen brought to Queensland last year, after a prolonged drought, an example of what’s to come.

“The largest amount of rain that has fallen 24 hours in history, it was something like 681 millimetres I believe, which is more rain than Melbourne gets in a year.”

Millions of hectares were flooded and that triggered the death of hundreds of thousands of cattle, he says.

“Something like 500,000 cattle, that were drought stressed, died in the floods then.

“These consecutive, simultaneous events where communities they weather the first one or the second one, but when it's happening so frequently now they're overwhelmed eventually - that's really the picture of the future that we have to prepare for.”