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Response by authorities to flooding or dearth


Disastrous Floods as Indicators of Systemic Risk Neglect (Part #4)


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The response of Australian authorities to the flooding in Queensland (and later Victoria) provides a valuable illustration of how authorities respond to disaster:

  • for the leader of the opposition, the floods exemplified the "worst of nature"
  • for the prime minister, in various declarations the focus was on a "return to normality"
  • for the treasurer, in justifying tax levies, the focus was on remedying the damage associated with the current flooding -- any consideration of possible future flooding (predicted by some) was "pure speculation" (Queensland was hit by Cyclone Yasi in the following days)
  • for the government as whole, the cost of the remedial responses provided a justification for reneging on electoral commitments to environmental programmes (which had persuaded some to vote for them in a tight election)
  • appointment of a commission of inquiry to report on the efficacy of emergency services (rather than on decisions ensuring vulnerability to flooding)

Especially noteworthy was the manner in which the government sought to identify itself with popular support for those affected by disaster through loss of homes and possessions, etc. In referring to the disaster as exemplifying the "worst of nature", a photo opportunity enabled the leader of the opposition to highlight the extent to which it elicited the "best of people". The latter point has been well made by Germaine Greer (Australian floods: Why were we so surprised by floods? The Guardian, 15 January 2011)

The official view is that Australians in flood areas are being wonderful. They are pulling together, helping each other, staying cheerful, not complaining. When given the opportunity they make inspiring statements, that they'll rebuild their communities, stronger and better than ever. That they are Queenslanders, who don't give up. (And so forth.) What nobody is talking about yet, is whether the flood risk can be reduced.

In presenting a case for additional taxation, it might be said that there was a degree of skillful exploitation of public goodwill:

  • using community solidarity as an exercise in CYA:
  • celebrating pulling together at the community level to compensate for evident fragmentation of authority at a higher level
  • hiding "behind God" as the perpetrator of such acts, in a manner reminiscent of the issues raised by the Australian movie The Man Who Sued God (2001).

Such responses might be summarized as:

  • focusing on the present and ignoring both exacerbating causative effects from the past and potential future disasters
  • opportunism in seeking to gain and sustain political advantage
  • avoidance of learning
  • exploiting community solidarity in support of those affected by the disaster
  • using a form of emotional blackmail, exploiting the need for remedial investment as a justification for further taxation -- effectively a form of "emotional taxation", taxing goodwill
  • using disaster as a justification for failure to deliver on electoral promises and to elicit further funds for remedial programmes for those complicit in avoiding recognition of risk

More generally this may be understood as:

  • an asystemic focus offering explanations based on proximate causes. This approach is equivalent to empty statements to airline passengers such as: We apologize for the departure delay -- this was due to a delay in the incoming flight
  • blaming nature for failing to conform to the best of scientific predictive expertise and enlightened urban planning ("Naughty rain, naughty rivers, naughty tides"?) -- thereby exonerating any authorities, public or otherwise, from any responsibility in the matter
  • failures of previously assertive authorities, needing in each case to be remedied by "bailouts" from the public -- called upon emotively (even exploitatively) to exhibit solidarity towards those whose risk-taking had been implicitly encouraged.

Most significant, in illustrating the lack of collective learning capacity, was the complete lack of reference to the causes of the vulnerability to risk from disaster, which might have included:

  • according building permission on land subject to flooding, whether for private homes or for public infrastructure
  • inadequacy of the scientific expertise and models applied to determining the risk of flooding (exemplified by those governing the release of water from dams at risk failure, exacerbating the flooding)
  • questionable nature and origin of the pressures brought to bear upon decision-making with regarding to either building permission or formulation (and acceptance) of modelling criteria

Such evident behaviour is presumably implicit in the response to less tangible forms of "flooding".


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