How can Australia better prepare itself for natural disasters?

As large parts of the country battle fires and floods, experts say it's time to start planning ahead to reduce the loss of lives and property.

In Australia, natural disasters and extreme weather conditions are a year-round threat.

Bushfires, droughts, heatwaves, cyclones and floods wreak havoc across the country - with events often hitting different states at the same time. 

John Bates from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre says natural disasters are occurring more frequently in Australia and lasting for longer.

"We're starting to get to a point where the number of natural hazards that are happening and the extension of the seasons is starting to stretch what the capacity of those resources are to respond," he told SBS News. 

People power

Mr Bates says planning for future natural disasters needs to involve efforts to bolster emergency resources.

"Particularly looking at the volunteers and where they're coming from because there is an aging demographic in the volunteer workforce at the moment," he said.

"Agencies across the country are looking at what they can do and how they can continue to attract and retain new volunteers."

A bushfire burns in Miena, Tasmania on 31 January.
Source: AAP

Urban planning

Design experts are also advising authorities, businesses and hospitals to prepare now for future weather events by incorporating ways to minimise their potential for destruction.

"With the impacts of climate change, we have to be thinking about planning for them all the time," said Elizabeth Mossop, dean of the UTS School of Design, Architecture and Building in Sydney. 

"We need to think about planning our cities, so we should be trying to design in things that will make cities more resilient to these sorts of events."

Flood control 

Residents in Queensland's north have begun the year with monsoonal rains causing record-breaking floods.

The downpour has been so severe authorities had to open the floodgates of the Ross River Dam, deliberately flooding around 2,000 homes.

Floodwaters along Ross River in Townsville on Friday.
Source: AAP

Australian National University School of Environment and Society professor Jamie Pittock says poor decisions regarding property development in flood-prone areas is undermining the efforts of emergency services.

"Unfortunately their good work is often prevented by bad land-use planning, by particularly state government authorities who've allowed development in harm's way," he said.

The NSW Government has proposed plans to raise the height of the Warragamba Dam in the Blue Mountains by 14 metres.

The initiative is being promoted as a flood-control measure to protect the Nepean River valley downstream. 

20,000 homes in Queensland were said to be at risk from flooding.
Source: AAP

But Professor Pittock is sceptical another motivation may be to allow development in the valley, which he says would see 130,000 people relocate to that part of Western Sydney.

"This is a gravely alarming proposal because it's actually putting people in harm's way in the illusion that this must be safe, rather than being more responsible and redirecting development to areas of higher land," he said.

He is calling on state governments to instead follow the example set by China, parts of Europe and the United States, and abandon further dam construction.

"Those sorts of developments have now largely ceased, and in most of those countries, governments are actively moving to acquire the most flood-prone lands to relocate houses to safer areas, or to raise or strengthen infrastructure in harm's way."

Published 5 February 2019 at 1:13pm, updated 5 February 2019 at 1:39pm
By Michelle Rimmer