Codes of human settlement would make safer communities
26 March 2012
Queensland has just issued its second flood report, on March 16, 2012. This most recent report is a longer and a more carefully crafted document than the last one. It is similar to the report on the Victorian bushfires issued on July 10, 2010.
These reports look for the ''smoking gun'' but contribute very little to how we deal with such disasters in future. In both reports suggestions for the future are to do what was not done well in the past, such as zoning for flood lands or cutting down dangerous bush surrounding homes as well as improved evacuations. These reports are much like good analysis, in military terms, of how and why we lost the war, but do little to prepare us for the next battles. In fact, if we followed the advice we would surely be in the same predicament in a few years that we are in now. Reports are not the answer and they may be the problem.
Our royal commissions don't have the right brief. The briefs for the Victorian and the Queensland commissioners were heavily weighted toward what caused the fire and floods and what could have been done better.
The real question should have been: ''How do we design better, safer communities for the future?'' If we asked this question, the panels organised to answer it would be composed of people with the expertise and ability to address the scientific issues and not merely good justices of the bench. The reports haven't satisfied the victims nor been lauded by experts precisely because they provide little in the way of new direction. Why rebuild, if you are subject to the same perils? In fact, rebuilding has been painfully slow in both Victoria and Queensland.
I think it is time for us to recognise that the disasters we are experiencing are the new norm and not the exception. No matter whether they are caused by climate change or the normal earth cycles, they are here to stay for some time to come. Since we have a long-term problem, we have to develop more resilient and longer term approaches to disaster in the same manner we developed international building codes several decades ago to prevent building collapses and fires. It is time to call for an international panel on disaster management to develop fundamental standards and guidelines for human settlements, which mirror international fire and building codes. These codes would be an internationally recognised code of human settlement.
The international building codes arose from very similar circumstances where fire was a uniform problem affecting industry and residents.
Human settlement codes would be guides to good practice outlining the geo-science base for where settlement should be developed, incorporating the best data on fire, flood, wind and other factors projected into the future, and where current risks of settlement are high, with bandwidths of dangers indicated on maps and satellite imagery.
This would allow simulations of various types of danger to be examined based on international data before building is undertaken, or risks could be reduced by adaptive measures as a result of the data.
We are already using similar measures in NSW to reduce risks to communities and properties by selective purchases of flood- and fire-prone lands.
Human settlement codes would become the international guide for good settlement practices.
These codes would be adopted by each nation independently, much like the international building codes.
Since the adoption of the international building codes and similar public safety measures, the numbers of deaths from fire have plummeted around the world. Moreover, developing a global code places pressure on international firms to conform to these standards and gives local governments the backbone to impose them. Of course, the insurance industry would use them to benchmark coverage.
In addition, adopting measures like this would have the flow-on benefit of reducing carbon emissions by promoting more compact building in safer areas. Clearly, this is not a city by city responsibility. In Australia, the states and federal government would have to enter into a joint agreement through the Council of Australian Governments.
These guidelines would place the federal and state governments on equal terms, with dollar-for-dollar sharing of the costs of the relocation of people and rebuilding before or after a disaster.
Australia has the opportunity to lead the world in safe building practices now, just as we did after Cyclone Tracy.
So, let's act and lead now; it costs too much to act later.
Edward Blakely is honorary professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He was the director of recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and author of My Storm (Penn University Press), which documents the drama and trauma of that recovery.
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