People at heightened risk because community groups overlooked in disaster management

11 April 2013

The Australian Council of Social Service today released extensive new research showing the ability of communities to respond to natural disasters is being severely weakened by the exclusion of community based organisations from disaster management planning.

The research project, ‘Extreme Weather, Climate Change and the Community Sector – Risks and Adaptations’, is a world first review of the preparedness of community service organisations that provide critical social services and support to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the community.

“A major finding was that despite the crucial role locally based organisations play in supporting and rebuilding people’s lives during disasters like bushfires and floods – they are not included in official emergency response planning and are critically under-resourced to participate effectively,” said ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie.

“The report highlights the serious consequences, especially for people who rely on social services to meet basic needs, if vital service agencies are not able to cope with increasing extreme events.

“One research participant in the research bluntly told us that clients would die if their organisation could not provide services because they will not be able to eat, use shower and toilet facilities or get out of bed without the assistance that their organisation provides.

“Another example provided demonstrates the critical consequences of service failure in rural and remote areas, with an organisation that provides high security accommodation for women and children at immediate risk from domestic and family violence telling us: ‘We are the only service of its type for 1500 km. Women’s and children’s safety in the region would be extremely compromised’.

Dr Karl Mallon the project’s principal investigator, stated, “Our research indicates that one week after an extreme weather event 50% of community service organisations that sustain serious disruption to their premises or utilities would still be out of operation.”

He said, “This research confirms what we have seen recently in the USA and Europe, that highly vulnerable groups like the elderly and people with disabilities are being left to fend for themselves for days and even weeks after a disaster because the community organisations that normally tend to them have themselves been crippled. Therein lies the key to the solution, to protect vulnerable people from worsening extreme events society must prepare the community sector.”

Yve Earnshaw from the Dunalley Tasman Neighbourhood House in Tasmania joined ACOSS at the Senate hearing to confirm the report findings through her recent experience in the devastating Tasmanian bushfires. Ms Earnshaw said, “As a community organisation with extensive local knowledge and expertise, we established our two centres as free public phone and internet centres and in Dunalley as a temporary health service facility for stranded people during the fires. We have had to fund the extra financial costs entirely from our own financial reserves. Three months on from the devastating fires, we are still employing additional staff to meet increased demand for community services and to run fire recovery programs, without yet receiving any promised additional funding to meet the associated costs.”

Dr Goldie told today’s Inquiry that the community sector also has the solutions and presented the 12 core recommendations from the report to the Senate Committee. They cover resourcing and funding mechanisms, building sector preparedness and resilience, and sharing risks within the sector, with government and with the private sector and through insurance and collaboration.

Dr Goldie stated, “This research has come to light on our watch. It is incumbent on us all, in government, the emergency services and the community to work together to fix this problem. No modern wealthy country can conscionably leave its most vulnerable to the ravages of natural disasters and extreme weather events. We must now collaborate to ensure community service organisations are fully prepared and a formal part of the solution- anything less would be negligent.”

Media Contact: Fernando de Freitas 0419 626 155

DOWNLOAD REPORT: Adapting the Community Sector for Climate Extremes from the NCCARF website.

About the research:
The ACOSS research was led by Dr Karl Mallon of Climate Risk, an expert on weather and climate impacts for infrastructure and insurance, and funded by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF).

Key Recommendations:
The report identifies a series of recommendations about the resources and action required to prepare and adapt community service organisations – and the community service sector broadly – to climate change and extreme weather impacts:

1. The Commonwealth should establish a Community Sector Adaptation Fund to support capacity and resilience building projects for CSOs and their clients.

2. Contracts for service delivery must provide greater flexibility to CSOs and enable them to participate effectively in disaster response and recovery efforts.

3. Contracts for service delivery must ensure timely compensation for their contributions to response and recovery efforts; and

4. Contracts for service delivery must ensure they are not penalised for failing to meet contractual obligations due to their participation in disaster response and recovery.

5. Raise awareness about the serious risks to its service delivery and to people experiencing poverty and inequality from climate change and worsening extreme weather impacts;

6. Undertake climate change and extreme weather risks assessments and develop and implement disaster management and service continuity plans; and

7. Invest in climate change and extreme weather preparedness and response training for staff and volunteers engaged in direct service provision as well as management and administrative roles.

The community services sector must be resourced and supported to develop:

8. A set of easily accessible, practical adaptation and preparedness tools that meet the needs of a broad spectrum of community service organisations and can be implemented and institutionalised within their current operational arrangements;

9. Adaptation and preparedness benchmarks specific to community service provision that enable organisations, their funding agencies and insurers to plot progress towards risk reduction, resilience and adaptive capacity; and

10. Sector level initiatives to adapt CSOs and the sector as a whole that ensure inclusiveness and recognise the particular barriers faced by small and medium-sized organisations to engage in risk assessment, adaptation planning and implementation.

11. In partnership with the insurance sector, national and state sector peaks must develop affordable, sector-specific insurance packages that specifically address the climate change and extreme weather risks identified in this report;

12. The sector must be supported to build on existing relationships and to develop new links and partnerships with peer organisations, including those that are experienced in climate change adaptation and emergency management, as well as non-traditional partners such as local councils, state government departments of environment and climate change, emergency services and utilities in order to create strong adaptation and preparedness ‘networks’ at the local level; and

13. Formal federal, state and local government recognition of the critical role the community services sector can and does play in climate change adaptation and emergency management with commensurate resources to facilitate and support its effective participation in planning, response and recovery at all levels.