Northern Australia -– utopia or disaster zone?

| June 27, 2016

Development of Northern Australia has implications for the entire nation -– bringing both potential benefits and also enormous risks.

There have been numerous reports on Northern Australia, most recently the government white paper ‘Our North, Our Future’ in June 2015. Many reports have adopted either strongly optimistic or pessimistic positions influenced by pre-existing agendas.

The Global Access Partners (GAP) Taskforce on The North, Agriculture and Environment brought together a group of stakeholders with specific interest and expertise in the development of Northern Australia.

Members of the Taskforce recognised the value of development in the North for its strategic location and untapped resources.

However, to achieve real and meaningful progress there is a need for a more balanced approach for development of the North within its national context.

The GAP Taskforce report on the ‘The North, Agriculture and the Environment’ provides a holistic assessment of the strengths, weaknesses and potential of the North. It considers development through the lens of a custodian of the land, and advocates for well-researched strategies that consider weather, water allocation, soil quality and ecological viability, in addition to issues that are commonly raised when discussing the North such as regulation, transport and infrastructure.

Northern Australia offers a ‘blank slate’ for planning and development that is tailored to Australia’s distinctive weather and climate. Historically, houses have been built in high risk locations due to a lack of natural peril data and mapping. This has led to concentrations of homes in locations that are highly exposed to extreme weather. We have seen the consequences when the bad weather does hit — most recently in Queensland and NSW following ex-tropical cyclone Oswald in 2013, and previously during Cyclone Yasi, the 2010–11 Queensland floods and the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Lessons should be learned from these experiences and preventative measures applied in Northern Australia. New buildings in disaster prone locations can be constructed to better withstand extreme weather based on research from disasters in other regions.

Northern Australia is often portrayed as the key to the nation’s prosperity, bursting with untapped potential that is waiting to be unleashed with targeted investment. Even though the region undoubtedly has many appealing attributes, one highly significant feature tends to be overlooked.

The northern part of Australia is exposed to much more extreme weather than other areas of Australia. Many areas of Northern Australia are prone to multiple natural hazards including floods, hail, severe storms and bushfire. The tropical cyclone risks of the northern part of Australia are particularly severe, resulting in significantly higher losses than other natural hazards. Insurance losses due to cyclones in northern Australia over the past 20 years have totalled $2.4 billion, which is around $115 million per year on average.

‘The Australian Government White Paper on Developing Northern Australia’ contemplates rapid population growth of 4 to 5 million by 2060. Increases in property development and population density will only magnify the devastating impacts of natural disasters to individuals and communities. Rising economic costs of natural disasters over the past 10 years are demonstrably linked to increases in population density, supporting infrastructure and increasing value of assets.

In addition to the economic costs, a serious disaster event such as a flood or cyclone is often associated with loss of life, community upheaval, business interruption and disruption to local infrastructure. Natural disasters also have wide-ranging intangible impacts on health and well being, community engagement and employment. Evidence shows that natural disasters exacerbate chronic disease and are followed by increased rates of domestic violence and relationship breakdowns.

The ‘liveability’ of the region, therefore is undoubtedly tied to successfully managing these risks in the early stages of development to ensure a resilient and sustainable Northern Australia. It is concerning then that the extreme weather risk that is characteristic of northern Australia is not highlighted or even referred to in the White Paper.

A poorly thought out strategy in the North risks burdening the rest of the nation financially if things go wrong. A national approach is needed for Northern development, assessed in its federal context. Not only is national investment necessary for the North’s growth, but everyone will pay when a large scale natural disaster occurs. Under current natural disaster funding arrangement, the states and the Australian Government share the recovery costs of individuals and communities following large natural disasters regardless of the location of the event.

When insurance is expensive or unavailable, the contribution required by the Federal Government is even greater. Currently insurance affordability is a growing issue in the more highly populated parts of Northern Australia. Similar trends can be expected in other parts of the North as it is developed if we continue to repeat past mistakes of building the wrong typse of houses in the wrong places.

This doesn’t mean plans for the North should be abandoned but rather, demand a balanced approach that examines both the opportunities and risks. Well planned and fit for purpose development in the North can help realise the aspirations outlined in the White Paper. An understanding of weather risk based on reliable data will provide greater certainty to investors by guiding suitable locations for development.

Risk appropriate land use planning and zoning can minimise costly mistakes of inappropriate building of homes and communities in highly vulnerable locations. While weather risk is only one of many factors that needs to be assessed and understood to formulate a successful strategy for Northern Australia, it is clearly one that should not be ignored.