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Councils have new tool to prepare communities for future natural disasters

By Helena Game and Donal Shiel, Saturday August 1, 2020 - 09:42 EST
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The Natural Disaster Resilience Index is an interactive map, showing how regions rate on access to emergency services, telecommunication and their level of community engagement. - ABC licensed

A new database is mapping what essential services communities have to help them prepare for future natural disasters, like drought, fires and floods.

Melissa Parsons from the University of New England is leading the project in partnership with the Bushfire and Natural Disaster Cooperative Research Centre.

During the summer bushfires, many communities were left exposed with a lack of internet and mobile services, but some made up for it with strong community connections.

Dr Parsons said there are measurable factors, that indicated how well prepared a community could be for a crisis.

"In this particular context, resilience is not about individuals," she said. 

"We know that most communities are actually made up of resilient people who are participating in reducing risk to the best of their ability.

"[But] what the index does is take more of a structural look at disaster resilience."

Her research has fed into the Australian Disaster Resilience Index, to factor in eight separate areas including: the quality of emergency services, planning and the built environment, economic capital, social character and demographics, community engagement, information access with telecommunications and internet, governance and leadership.

Helping communities to collaborate

Dr Parsons said regional areas faced greater hurdles to long-term resiliency due to extreme environmental factors and lacklustre infrastructure. 

"There's a lot of telecommunications barriers that are forming some constraints on being able to engage through digital means, with natural hazard information," she said.

"That's a really important part of disaster resilience, because we need to know about risk, and we need to know what to do about that risk."

She said the index's end-game was not to create a competition between regions, but instead inform the decision making of NGOs and all levels of government.

"It's a way of looking at which places around Australia are alike, and how they might be able to collaborate and cooperate."

Glen Innes region rated 'low' resilience

The Glen Innes region in northern NSW was classed as an "outer-regional" area with a low community resilience rating.

The index stated communities with a low rating may experience "entrenched social and economic disadvantage" and "limited opportunities for adaptive learning and problem solving".

The mayor of the Glen Innes Severn Council, Carol Sparks, said an important factor was the region's poor telecommunication service.

She said the many primary producers around Glen Innes may need to have a frank conversation about their practices in order to halt the intensity of climate change.

"Australia is a dry country, and we should know that, and we should listen to the science, and put things in place that may help," she said.

"We're an agricultural community, and people need to perhaps change some of their methods, and it's very hard for people to change."

In November 2019, a raging bushfire swept through the small town of Wytaliba, 50km east of Glen Innes.

The blaze killed two people and destroyed 52 homes, including the town's primary school.

Each of the three strengths, attributed to the Glen Innes region in the index, reaffirmed a strong sense of social and community cohesion.

But with lacking economic capital, emergency services and telecommunications, Cr Sparks said the index highlighted the community faced a challenging future.

"It's just about education and looking at what's actually happened, and coming to terms with the changes that are happening to the community as a whole."


© ABC 2020

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