Dr John Bates, Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience
The extreme weather event that affected South Australia from 28 September to 5 October 2016 provided an opportunity to explore the impacts of the events themselves and more importantly, how the consequences of damage and disruption caused by the force of the storms (a combination of thunderstorms, destructive winds, large hailstones and heavy rain) impacted on the South Australian community. AIDR’s Cascading and Complex Network Failures Forum explored the South Australian extreme weather event on 7 April 2017 through a range of guest speakers and panel sessions.
In the lead up to the extreme weather event in South Australia:
The Independent Review of the Extreme Weather Event1 concluded that:
At the Forum, Leanne Adams from South Australia State Emergency Service discussed some of the unanticipated consequences arising from the storms and power failure and lessons that can be learned to minimise future impact.
Alongside all of this, there was significant physical damage across South Australia to roads, bridges, electricity infrastructure, residential and commercial buildings, coastal erosion and agricultural areas.
Beck Dawson, Chief Resilience Officer at Resilient Sydney, described cascading failure as invisible. All too often the flow-on failures from a single event are not well thought through and are either not considered or are thought to be so rare that it is better to focus on something that is more likely to occur. Resilience, she rightly said, is a team sport – no one can do it by themselves.
One topic that was explored by presenters and participants during the forum was the depth of the cascading effects of network failures linked to the availability of liquid fuel and food security. In our modern society, food distribution is managed from local distribution centres and relies heavily on road transport, which in turn is dependent on available and accessible fuel supplies. The events in South Australia demonstrated the vulnerabilities of fuel supplies in the event of loss of power arising from any event that affects the electricity grid; from equipment failure through extreme weather events to criminal activities. Beyond that, however, is the absolute reliance on imported, liquefied fuels to meet demands. A series of reports commissioned by the NRMA and published in 20142 conclude that Australia imports more than 90 per cent of its liquid fuel needs. Those reports bring together information from a variety of sources to provide a snapshot of food distribution logistics:
While it is important to understand the cascading effects of complex network failures, it is ultimately the impacts that these events have on individuals, communities, businesses and governments that is of fundamental importance.
There is no easy way to solve these complex challenges and we know that individuals, communities, businesses and governments will respond differently, depending on their experiences, their expectations and the context in which an emergency or disaster strikes them.
At a macro level, governments and private providers of critical infrastructure and essential services need to work harder on business continuity planning. They need to pay particular attention to a reliance on other critical systems and services and how the continuity of their business plays a critical role in the continuity of communities and other businesses and services.
In preparation for the next unexpected sequence of natural disasters, criminal acts and global shocks (and the one after that) individually and collectively we need to better imagine what is possible and how we can mitigate against, or adapt to, that reality. It is not a simple task and we will not always get it right. However, when we understand the complexity and we all own the risks that are relevant to us, we will be better able to minimise the impacts of these inevitable events.
1 Independent Review of the Extreme Weather Event, South Australia, 28 September-5 October 2016.