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Coping with Australia’s Surfeit of Natural Disasters & Lessons to be Learned

CANBERRA, Australia, Feb 4 2020 (IPS) - I love visiting Canberra in the summer. The air is clean. The water in lake Burley Griffin is crystal clear and the “go boats” merrily bob up and down with their wine sipping occupants while black swans frolic in peace.

Canberrans, who are habitually relaxed, become more friendly. Clothes worn become decidedly casual and barely adequate.

BBQs get lit and the smell of burnt meat and beer induced laughter pervade the backyards. And the “laid back like a lizard on a summer’s day” becomes more than a casual expression.

But this year was different. Summer temperatures continued to establish new records. The capital clocked up an unprecedented 43 degrees Celsius, a figure more familiar in Middle Eastern cities.

Bush fires have continued to ravage the countryside for months, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and farm land (an area bigger than Scotland has been consumed by the flames so far) and thousands of houses.

The Canberra airport was closed for an afternoon due to the threat posed by an expanding grass fire close by.

Farm animals, by the thousands, have perished in the intense heat and insurance claims are expected to exceed one billion Dollars. Millions of native animals, some endangered, have also been wiped out.

Thick smoke caused by the fires blanketed major cities, including Canberra, turning day into night in this normally sun swept land of clear skies, raising fears of possible long-term health implications.

On some days, the air quality in the capital Canberra, was considered to be the worst in any capital city in the world. Restaurants suffered seriously with customers staying at home in droves due to the thick smoke hovering over the city.

The Rose sipping sophisticates just stayed at home. Adding insult to injury, a cricket match at the Manuka Oval in the city was cancelled due to the smoke.

The simmering debate on climate change boiled over, even raising concern in Davos, but the deniers, some in high places, continued to shy away from the hard issues, issues that are likely to impact on the future of our planet.

An unbelievably ferocious hail storm seriously damaged over 30,000 cars in Canberra and resulted in a flood of insurance claims. The city, nay the country, is not equipped to deal with so many modes of transport being damaged in such a short period.

Certainly. it will not be possible to replace the damaged cars any time soon. The city may have to adopt innovative solutions to cope with this challenge, including expanding its fleet of buses and even providing free rides. Canberra, enamoured with the private car for so long, may have to get used to public buses and even using the much- denigrated light rail service.

Canberra folk might even begin to tolerate an additional few minutes in daily travel time, which is not even an issue in other capital cities! It may even be a blessing in disguise providing more texting and emailing time for the commuter without running afoul of the police.

A chorus of messages of sympathy poured in from world leaders. The world was genuinely shocked at what Australia was experiencing. But it was heartening that the country, faced with this unprecedented catastrophe, rallied quickly and methodically set about the task of containing the fires, rebuilding and restoring.

The example set to the world was truly impressive. Many good practices were actually implemented.

Much has been said about what could be done to avoid or at least minimize damage of this nature in the future, not only in Australia but elsewhere in the world where unexpectedly severe natural phenomena have begun to cause widespread disruption to the lives of ordinary people and national economies. The debate will continue.

But to facilitate discussion, and the possible adoption of appropriate measures in response in the future, we will propose some ideas gleaned from Australia’s experience and experiences elsewhere in the world. Bush fires in Australia will continue to occur in the future. Some will be more devastating than others.

Why not establish a centrally controlled dedicated fund to be accessed only in the event of a major natural disaster, especially bush fires. Other natural disasters like droughts, floods and tsunamis also can be covered.

This will be in the nature of a fund controlled by the central government and will obviate the need to scamper around to locate monetary resources after the event. In Australia and other federal jurisdictions, the primary responsibility for dealing with natural disasters will remain with the constituent states.

An interstate mechanism with individuals with experience and expertise in the field which could be activated at short notice might also help. A rich country like Australia should be capable of setting aside resources for this purpose given that natural disasters seem to be happening at all too frequent intervals.

Likewise, in Australia, the federal government could acquire a reserve of equipment, fire trucks, fixed wing aero planes, helicopters and other equipment to be kept ready to respond quickly in an emergency. The need to obtain equipment at short notice from overseas can thus be obviated.

What is more, Australia’s reserve stock of equipment could be lent to other countries in emergency situations. The occurrence of major forest fires has become a noticeable summer phenomenon in the northern hemisphere also. Tsunamis, floods, forest fires, etc occur regularly elsewhere in the region. While, it may be possible to recover the cost of making equipment available, the goodwill generated would also be considerable.

Operators of such equipment could be trained in advance. They could be members of the civil defense force who could be called up for duty at short notice. A pool of such trained personnel would be an asset readily available to be deployed to assist in any emergency situation.

In the meantime, Australia should also take a more proactive attitude towards anthropogenic climate change. There is a crescendo of voices around the world pushing governments to do more about climate change. It is an issue which has galvanized opinion in the past.

Historically, Australia played a leading role in global discussions in advocating measures to address environmental degradation, climate change, ozone depletion, hazardous waste, preservation of the Antarctica, sustainable development, etc. Australia spoke with a voice that commanded respect. It can continue to play a lead role and recover its moral authority without necessarily compromising its economic options.

In Australia, it is also vital to deal quickly with the seriously negative impact of the bush fires on tourism which has affected thousands of businesses and jobs. The tourist industry, a major employment generator, is hurting.

The images of the ferocious fires and the blanketing smoke beamed in to living rooms around the world cannot be erased overnight. A multi-media response is immediately required. It is important to acknowledge what happened honestly and highlight the proactive and businesslike manner in which the Australian people responded.

The bravery of ordinary volunteer firefighters and civilians, reflecting the nation’s “can do and we will spirit”, need to be given prominence in the media. The rapid recovery action taken, despite the odds, needs underlining.

Depending on the tourist market, people from those markets need to highlight Australia’s response in the different languages. Australia has been through much but the opportunity presented to demonstrate what it can do is significant.

As the lucky country reels under the impact of the fires, smoke, floods, heat and hail, it still remains the land of dreams for many.

*Dr Palitha Kohona, a former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN and Chief of the UN Treaty Section, has previously proposed the creation of a Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) by the United Nations to deal with environmental emergencies.

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