Local government and emergency preparedness

Recent articles highlight the changing nature of major rain producing mechanisms and the failure of State and local government to adequately prepare for the significant flooding associated with such events.

In Great Britain (GB) lack of funding in local government severely constrains its ability to adequately deal with significant flooding in urban areas. It prevents the introduction of ‘soft’ solutions such as community education, ‘hard’ solutions such as flood control structures, and often leaves authorities with a token role in flood response.

It is compounded by the fact town positioning, layout and infrastructure are what they are – they may be poorly located when it comes to flood protection; may have urban layouts and road networks not sympathetic to natural drainage paths; major transport embankments across flood plains; yet they encompass a rich, well-established community network of homes, shops, schools, hospitals, businesses etc which cannot simply be picked up and relocated in a more suitable position. In addition the gradient of local topography, the proximity to ocean (or riverine) outlets and the influence of high tides (or floods in adjoining rivers) may mean that, no matter what action is taken, flooding will always occur. It quickly becomes apparent that any ‘solution’ involves a complex mix of social, physical, political and economic factors, which ultimately reduces to – what can we afford?

Speaking of money, the harsh political and economic reality is that State and National governments take the view that this is primarily a local problem which should be fixed and funded by the local community.

Having partnered with the BoM,  VICSES and local government on flood warning system effectiveness over a number of years, I note that the issues being surfaced in GB are all relevant to the Victorian scene. I also note that the limited funding capacity of local government leads to (a) Municipal Emergency Response Officers (MEROs) being under-resourced and working incredibly hard to protect their friends and neighbours against disaster; (b) staff not having the specialist training or skills to address these complex issues in a comprehensive manner, and (c) Councils attempting to hand back responsibility to State Government – we weren’t adequately consulted about this division of responsibility and, without additional resourcing, we are refusing to take it on-board. The buck passing and associated blame-game obviously helps no-one.

Those interested in contributing to the way forward may wish to consider the following:

The way forward will not be a simple deterministic process often found in engineering text-books. Rather, it will be a complex social process which wrestles with hard political, physical, financial and social realities.

The most appropriate way forward will be unique to each town or region – this is not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Moving forward will require a collaborative, dialogue-based approach involving all relevant stakeholders, ie representatives of flood-affected communities; senior decision-makers of relevant government departments (not the junior office-person as the token representative); business people and specialists (as required). It will need to be conducted over a period of time, in an atmosphere of respect for difference (recognition of the legitimate plurality of goals and perspectives), involve mutual learning and co-construction of the most appropriate way forward. Senior leaders and/or managers of relevant government departments may find this shared approach to decision-making difficult to accommodate.

Each participating group (and individual) must be prepared to deal with the political and financial reality of the situation, and to give ground in order to negotiate a way forward which is acceptable to all parties. This includes being prepared to recognize that a complete solution may not be achievable, and whatever solution is proposed may have to be implemented incrementally, as funding permits. Politicians and departmental heads may find this long-term commitment difficult to sustain.

While I have not worked in the area of fire preparedness, I suspect that some of these principles are also likely to be effective in that environment. Colleagues interested in, and committed to the achievement of sustainability may notice that the principles of complexity and stakeholder collaboration outlined above are compatible with those required for the achievement of sustainable development.

Is this difficult to achieve – yes. Is it impossible – no – not if the political will is there, and if influential champions, who are committed to seeing it through, can be engaged. The alternative is that we throw up our hands, do nothing and watch the next tragedy unfolding in real-time on the 6 o’clock news.

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