Flooded house at Windsor, NSW, Australia. July 5, 2022

Communities self-organising for climate disasters

2 August 2023
In their submission to the Senate inquiry into Australia’s disaster resilience, the Sydney Environment Institute illustrated that community responses to climate disasters have been critical and need support.

In a submission to the Senate Select Committee on Australia's Disaster Resilience, the Sydney Environment Institute offered preliminary findings from its ongoing bushfire and disaster risk reduction projects.

These research projects investigate two recent climate catastrophes: the ‘Black Summer’ bushfires (which occurred across a nine-month period in 2019-2020), and the ‘East Coast Floods’ that occurred throughout Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria during 2021–2023.

The submission explains that communities throughout Australia were often the first, and sometimes the only, emergency responders to these disasters, and that community-led recovery has been critical in the aftermath.

Both projects illustrate the resilience of communities, which contribute to recovery across all stages of the disaster cycle. This includes preparation in anticipation of disasters and post-disaster responses – both immediate and long term.

Self-organising systems

SEI staff partnered with local organisations to better understand spontaneous community responses to natural disasters in the Northern Rivers, Blue Mountains, and Hawkesbury regions.

Researchers identified recurring forms of self-organised community responses to natural disasters including sharing critical information, organising house searches and welfare checks, rescuing stranded people, caring for domestic, farmed, and wild animals, cleaning up houses and streets, providing basic resources such as food, water, fuel, and machinery, and coordinating volunteers and donations from other communities.

Informal community networks mostly undertook these efforts without the support of local, state, or federal government agencies. In fact, many interview participants explained that the failure of formal agencies to recognise and apply local knowledge impeded disaster response and recovery efforts. Many community networks started as a response to perceptions in the community that government agencies had failed to respond to the disasters adequately.

Protecting animals in catastrophic fires

SEI has been running its bushfire project in partnership with the Shoalhaven City Council. The project uses the experiences of the 2019-20 Black Summer fires to inform processes that support communities in caring for animals during fires and other climate disasters.

The project is based on the observation that while community members came together to care for domesticated and wild animals, the state only supported the care of farmed animals. It seeks to address the lack of formal structures to support animals and communities as they experience collective trauma and loss from the fires.

One of the preliminary findings is that care work for animals is not formally or economically recognised and generally falls on people already doing informal, unpaid care work.

As with the disaster risk reduction project, the bushfire project finds that a range of community networks bloom in the wake of climate disasters. It finds that communities can do things that formal services do not, such as respond swiftly, be flexible, and draw on local connections and networks.

But communities are under-resourced from the start, and responding to disasters poses many complex challenges that tend to deplete them further. Managing community life after a climate disaster comes with more challenges, harms, and losses.

Under-resourced communities

The scale of the Black Summer bushfires and the East Coast floods demonstrated that the need of communities outstrip governments’ abilities to respond to disasters. The Bushfire Royal Commission highlighted the need for improved governance, as well as the need for communities to accept that they will have to step up when emergency services are not enough.

As SEI’s research demonstrates, during large scale disasters communities are already stepping up and are using their own resources and networks to respond to disasters, though they are not adequately trained or equipped to do so.

In a warming world, it is essential that communities are prepared and resourced to play this inevitable role. They must also be linked to existing formal disaster governance arrangements to better enable the flow of information, and for governments, non-government organisations, and businesses to be able to meet community needs.

Institutional failures

SEI’s preliminary findings suggest that, in many cases, the ability of formal disaster-response agencies to coordinate with communities broke down as they approached constraints on available labour, equipment, fuel, and other essential resources.

This breakdown in coordination hindered the allocation of state-controlled resources and the effective use of community efforts. Infrastructure failures – including of roads, telecommunication, and electricity networks – compounded the institutional failures.

Research participants explained that inadequate formal disaster-response systems shifted the financial, psychosocial, and ecological burdens of fires and floods onto informal networks and individuals.

The Senate Select Committee should prioritise fixing the institutional failures that cause these burdens. SEI has identified five key themes, based on preliminary findings, that may help the Committee with this.

How governments can help

First, governments should recognise community knowledge and organising efforts, and formally include this knowledge in disaster, resilience, and adaptation planning. The Committee may consider policies that foster negotiation between communities and governments, with a focus on local decision-making processes rather than prescriptive outcomes.

Second, communities that are more socially integrated and organised are better equipped to distribute information, responsibilities, and resources in volatile situations. Deeper and more extensive community networks reduce the risk of people becoming isolated if a centralised system collapses. The Committee may consider how well-connected communities may reduce the impacts of institutional failures in the future.

Third, investments in ‘enabling infrastructure’ may reduce the dependence of community-led responses to natural disasters on formal government agencies. Participants in the disaster risk reduction project have consistently raised the need for government investment in telecommunications systems including backup generators, off-grid solar power, and other sources of electricity.

Fourth, strategies premised on building community resilience should not allow governments to evade their formal responsibilities. Resilience must be a collaborative outcome, with governments working to support communities to do what they do best, while still ensuring government emergency and recovery services are better resourced and more effective. The Committee should also consider climate change – the fundamental driver of worsening natural disasters – as the first concern of government policy.

Fifth, governments should avoid policies that impose more bureaucratic processes on communities. Government policies that seek to harness the benefits of community networks from the ‘top-down’ may be counterproductive.

SEI’s submission has outlined how governments can, instead, foster participatory democracy at a local level, recognise the need for types of work beyond the scope of traditional government disaster and recovery strategies, and reduce the constraints that undermine community networks.

Submission lead author: Zac Gillies-Palmer

Submission co-authors: Anna Sturman, Blanche Verlie, Danielle Celermajer, Rebecca McNaught, David Schlosberg, Jo Longman, Scott Webster

Based on research by Professor David Schlosberg, Professor Danielle Celermajer, Dr Scott Webster, Dr Blanche Verlie, Emma Pittaway, Zac Gillies-Palmer, Gemma Viney, Professor Amanda Howard, Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, Dr Pam Joseph, Dr Jo Longman, Associate Professor Petr Matous, Dr Nader Naderpajouh, Associate Professor Margot Rawsthorne, Professor Jakelin Troy, Rebecca McNaught, Mary Lyons, Rachel Hall, Maddy Braddon, Dr Anna Sturman, Freya MacDonald, and Alison Cash

Article by Saimi Jeong

Header image: Flooded house at Windsor in the Hawkesbury region of NSW in July 2022. Photo by Wes Warren on Unsplash

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