SEI awarded major funding to examine climate disasters

20 December 2022
SEI researchers have secured two NSW Disaster Risk Reduction Fund Discovery Project grants to undertake research on strengthening community resilience and preparation for ongoing climate disasters.

The Sydney Environment Institute is thrilled to announce that its researchers have been awarded over $900K as part of the NSW Disaster Risk Reduction Fund to support two key projects to better prepare communities for ongoing climate disasters.

The two Discovery grants, funded through the State Risk Reduction Stream of the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund, are led by SEI Director Prof David Schlosberg and SEI member and Director of the Heat and Health Research Incubator Professor Ollie Jay, Faculty of Medicine and Health. A total of 13 SEI members are contributing personnel on the two grants; these Chief Investigators come from Arts and Social Sciences, Science, Medicine and Health, Law, and Engineering.

Both projects entail significant public engagement and partnerships, to bring community experiences into the development of disaster risk reduction strategies. And both projects aim to improve community resilience in the face of the reality of increased climate impacts now facing Australia.
SEI Director David Schlosberg

The first project, Self-organising Systems to Minimise Future Disaster Risk, led by Professor Schlosberg, focuses on the organisation of spontaneous community networks of support in the wake of shock climate events. Working with partner organisations in the Northern Rivers, Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury regions, the project will examine community groups that coordinated information, organised to search houses, rescued those stranded, assisted in care for animals (domestic, farm and wild), cleaned houses and streets, provided basic needs, and coordinated labour and funding offered by the broader communities. These actions were developed and functioned during and after emergency events through informal self-organising networks, mostly with no official institutional support from councils, state, or federal governments.

The project addresses two large risks which can undermine spontaneous community responses to disasters in the future. The first is the loss or lack of use of community knowledge in the immediate aftermath of disasters, or in preparation for future shock events. Without a way to recognise, record, and support such processes, there would be a need to face the next disaster with less coordinated knowledge. Preserving and building community knowledge about past responses and the self-organising capacities that worked well will reduce that risk.

The second risk is the loss of community faith and support for local and state institutions, as the disconnect between spontaneous community responses and government responses is consistently illustrated with a lack of preparedness. The community anger at the federal and state governments after both the Black Summer bushfires and many flood events shows both the potential risk of that breakdown of trust in, and legitimacy of, official responses. Local council and state support for the work of what was spontaneous community organising may lower the risk of delegitimised institutions.

This project recognises the connections to community and place that enabled these spontaneous community responses during the floods and fires of recent years; emphasising community knowledge as knowledge. Community-led organising will remain crucial in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from future disaster events. The project’s goal is to record local knowledges and experiences in order to help sustain them for the communities engaged as well as to make these knowledges available and adaptable to other communities across New South Wales.
Postdoctoral Research Fellow Scott Webster

After extensive interviews, workshops, and network mapping in partner communities, project outputs will include the development of a toolkit for use by community organisations, councils and governments state-wide that will assist the development, strength and recognition of self-organising systems as a way to lower the risk of climate-impacted events.

The second project, A new ‘Heat Stress Scale’ for reducing personal health risk during heatwave disasters, which was officially launched last week, is led by Professor Ollie Jay; the focus is the development, dissemination and pilot testing in Western Sydney of the utility of a new publicly available Heat Stress Scale (HSS). Information will be delivered on a personalised app and on public-facing displays in order to enhance community resilience to heatwave disasters.

This project gives us an opportunity to transform the way in which people interpret extreme heat weather forecasts. The new tool that we will develop will enable people to understand their level of individual heat-health risk, and also provide a platform to deliver evidence-based advice to reduce health risk levels. It will also provide planners with information on how to optimise heatwave disaster preparedness in advance of extreme heat events.
Professor Ollie Jay

The HSS will provide a simple interpretation of the current and forecasted heat stress risk by integrating not only temperature (typically used by the public to assess risk), but also humidity, solar radiation and wind speed. Using user-defined health (e.g., age, medical conditions, medication) and housing data, an adjusted personalised HSS rating for current/forecasted conditions will also be generated. Associated with each HSS category will be evidence-based strategies to optimally mitigate heat stress risk – this information will be personalised where individual information is available.

In collaboration with key stakeholders in government, health and the community, the HSS tool display and interactive features will be co-designed in a series of public workshops, organised with NGO and public health partners, in August-September 2022. Several different HSS formats will then be tested in Summer 2022-23 by delivering the HSS tool to target heat-vulnerable groups on different platforms (e.g., smartphone app, online calculator, public screens, text messages, radio, TV).

SEI’s Climate disaster and adaptation cluster, a research group comprised of nearly 50 scholars from across every faculty and professional school at the University of Sydney, is dedicated to examining the impact of climate-change induced disasters, with a focus on prevention, response, recovery, and just adaptation and transformation of communities exposed to disaster risk.

Congratulations to Professors Jay, Schlosberg, all of their SEI member collaborators (Prof Danielle Celermajer, Prof Amanda Howard, Assoc Prof Kurt Iveson, Dr Pam Joseph, Dr Jo Longman, Prof Rosemary Lyster, Assoc Prof Petr Matous, Dr Nader Naderpajouh, Assoc Prof Margot Rawsthorne, Prof Jakelin Troy, Dr Blanche Verlie, Dr Scott Webster) other academic partners (Prof Tony Capon, Dr Nicole Vargas, Dr Georgia Chaseling, Dr James Smallcombe, Dr Troy Cross, Ms Felicity Bright), and to the 11 government and community partner organisations joining SEI in these projects.

Header image: McGraths Hill, NSW, Australia by Harley Kingston via Shutterstock, ID: 1942353721.

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