Dealing with natural disasters needs generational change of focus

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

It’s time for a ‘generational change’ in Australia from focusing on natural disaster response and recovery to preparation and resilience, with economic opportunities also on offer, Minderoo Foundation’s Fire and Flood Resilience program chief executive officer Adrian Turner says.

Speaking on’s Commercial Disco podcast, Mr Turner outlined his push for Australia to shift its focus on spending on the response and recovery elements of natural disasters, to investing into resilience and recovery.

Australia has faced unprecedented natural disasters with increasing regularity in recent years, including severe floods and bushfires.

Minderoo Foundation’s Adrian Turner

The cost of these natural disasters is estimated to currently be $38 billion each year, and this figure is expected to climb to $73 billion by 2060.

Mr Turner, who was the founding CEO of CSIRO’s Data61, Natural disasters will continue to strike in the future, and Australia needs to look at improving its resilience in dealing with these, and this can primarily be done through technology and innovation.

“Resilience is basically the ability to absorb a shock and bounce back from it, and bounce back stronger. Our focus is around natural disasters and natural threats, and this country’s ability or inability to continue to absorb natural threats and shocks, and be able to bounce back from it,” Mr Turner said on the Commercial Disco podcast.

“We can reimagine how we deal with these natural disasters and we can apply everything from machine learning and robotics. It’s an enormous opportunity not only to help the country domestically but there are export opportunities here.

“We need to get better at dealing with system-level risk and getting ahead of it. It’s more challenging but more interesting to focus on resilience and the system-level change, which would be a generational change if we can pull it off.”

According to the United Nations, extreme weather events such as droughts and heatwaves have accounted for 74 per cent of global economic losses and 45 per cent of losses of life in the last 50 years.

“We’ve become numb to it and almost accepting of it. We need to do better as a country, and we can do better as a country,” Mr Turner said.

Australia’s current natural disaster spending is hugely weighted towards response and recovery. According to the Productivity Commission, 97 per cent of Australia’s investment is focused on response and recovery, and only 3 per cent is spent on resilience.

This needs to be significantly shifted, Mr Turner argued, and there are parallels here with Commonwealth spending on defence and military, which is commonly bipartisan and across election cycles.

“Those threats may show up, but natural threats show up with 100 per cent certainty, every year. The last time they showed up with these floods, 10 million Australians were impacted by that event alone,” he said.

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