Celeste Young, Victoria University and Roger Jones, Victoria UniversityOvercoming the odds is second nature to the Gippsland community. The people in this region have seen it all — fires, floods, droughts and extreme weather. And every time, these capable, resourceful and independent communities bounce back.
However, recovery from bushfires of the 2019/2020 Black Summer followed by the COVID-19 pandemic has been different.
Even before these events, we were researching vulnerability to natural hazards, risk ownership and diversity and inclusion nationally as part of our work with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.
Through a mix of interviews, focus groups and surveys, we sought insights about communities, how they recover after disaster and what factors have the greatest impact. We focused on community strengths and how to build on them.
Our recently released report, Growing the seeds: recovery, strength and capability in Gippsland communities, highlights that recovery is often non-linear. It’s not just the damage to infrastructure, houses, environment and farmland that makes recovery difficult; the emotional and physical toll is often gruelling as well.
The report identifies several opportunities for change, including the need for a long-term plan (five years minimum) for building community emergency management capability in the region — well before the next disaster strikes.
A brutal time
The 2019–20 fires damaged over half of the East Gippsland Shire, an area of over
1.16 million hectares. Over 400 dwellings and businesses were lost and four people lost their lives. Areas like Mallacoota were at acute risk. In some areas, communities were under threat for weeks and evacuated repeatedly, exhausting them before the recovery process began.
Then, the pandemic hit, disrupting the established pattern of recovery where people get together to make sense of what has happened and start to rebuild their communities. One person describe the timing as “brutal”. Another said:
When the fires happened, you had a couple of amazing people who stepped up, opened the hall, and everyone was coming in, and they started doing Friday night dinners and everyone was there. There were 200-odd people every Friday night and then COVID ended it.
Via online community consultations, interviews and focus groups, we asked community members to identify strengths that supported recovery and opportunities for change.
We also surveyed 614 people during October 2020 in fire-affected regions of Victoria and New South Wales, with 31% of respondents coming from Victoria and 69% from NSW.
When asked what strengths their community showed following the bushfires, they included generosity and kindness (69%), resilience (61%) and active volunteering (59%).
When asked to identify the main challenges since the bushfire, COVID was named as the main challenge (49%), followed by damage to the environment (39%), anxiety (31%) and overall fatigue (26%).
The combination of bushfires and the pandemic also created economic risks and disrupted supply chains. Small businesses make up 98% of the local economy, and many are heavily reliant on tourism.
Recovering through community strength and capability
Many of the strengths needed to drive recovery and resilience are already at the heart of these communities. These capabilities are more diverse and widespread than is often assumed.
There is considerable wealth and capacity in some areas, but also a high level of social and economic vulnerability, with some living hand-to-mouth.
There is significant local knowledge of risk management and recovery, which is often overlooked by experts coming in from outside. As one person told us:
You’ve got bureaucracy coming in from Melbourne who think that we’re just a bunch of country bumpkins who don’t quite know what we’re doing, yet we know our community better than they do.
Volunteer and informal economies are significant and underpin community resilience. Yet formal recovery strategies don’t target these areas very well; some people in the informal economy found they did not qualify for economic or business support at all.
The JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs helped maintain employment (albeit at levels of productivity that were lower than in the past). JobKeeper has now ended but support is still needed to boost productivity and help the local economy recover.
We also found:
- government and some supporting agencies often lacked knowledge about the cultural, physical and social structures of different communities
- some policies had perverse effects (for example, the HomeBuilder grant resulted in a lack of available builders)
- programs and communication were often not tailored and did not accommodate the diverse needs of communities or specific cohorts within them
- a lack of clarity as to what role the community have in response and recovery, and what risks they are responsible for
- short-term allocation of resources and funding sometimes created an environment of uncertainty; for example, some participants raised concerns vulnerable community members may at risk when contracts for certain programs ran out, as the service offered would either cease or be led by a new contract-holder. As one person told us:
You can’t just bring someone in now and go, ‘Here you go, you take over all my people’, because the relationships and the trust that you build over this time, it’s not something you can hand over to someone else.
Knowing community strengths and supporting them
Recovery processes will never be perfect and we can also no longer assume communities will have time to recover from one disaster before the next arrives. As one person said:
People are suffering collective trauma, which creates anxiety and irritability. So, it is going to be difficult to move forward and I believe [name removed] will be a really changed place, this is something that will echo up and down along all fire-ravaged communities.
In natural hazard prone areas like Gippsland, it’s crucial to know what strengths already exist in the community so they can be harnessed when disaster hits. In other words, we need to find ways to support and grow community capabilities.
Listening to communities
It’s crucial communities, governments and the emergency services have a shared understanding of what the priorities are after a disaster and what can be realistically achieved.
A database of community capabilities would support more effective planning, policy-making and program development, as would a longer term collaborative project to identify and develop community capability.
Through listening to these communities we can learn from their experiences and support the development of community-led pathways to recovery.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone
you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.
Tom Hubble, University of SydneyLast month’s flood in the Hawkesbury-Nepean River region of western Sydney peaked at a staggering 12.9 metres, with water engulfing road signs and reaching the tops of many houses.
There hasn’t been a major flood on the Hawkesbury-Nepean for more than 30 years, with the last comparable one occurring in 1990. Long-term Sydneysiders, however, will remember that 12 major floods occurred during the 40 years before 1990. Five of these were larger than last month’s flood.
So what’s going on? The long-term rainfall pattern in the region and corresponding river flow is cyclic in nature. This means 40 to 50 years of dry weather with infrequent small floods are followed by 40 to 50 years of wet weather with frequent major floods.
As river and floodplain residents take stock of the recent damage to their homes and plan necessary repairs, it’s vital they recognise more floods are on the way. Large, frequent floods can be expected to occur again within 10 or 20 years if — as expected — the historical pattern of rainfall and flooding repeats itself.
Living in a bathtub
Many of the 18,000 people who were evacuated live in and around a region known as the “Sackville Bathtub”. As the name suggests, this flat, low-lying section of the floodplain region was spectacularly affected.
The Sackville Bathtub is located between Richmond and Sackville. It’s part of the Cumberland Plain area of Western Sydney and formed very slowly over 100 million years due to plate tectonic processes. The bathtub’s mudstone rock layers are folded into a broad, shallow, basin-shaped depression, which is surrounded by steep terrain.
Downstream of Sackville, the Hawkesbury-Nepean River flows through sandstone gorges and narrows in width. This creates a pinch-point that partially blocks the river channel.
Just as a bath plug sitting half-way over a plughole slows an emptying bath, the Sackville pinch-point causes the bathtub to fill during floods.
Will raising the dam wall work?
The NSW state government is planning to raise the wall of the Warragamba Dam to help mitigate catastrophic floods in the region. But this may not be an effective solution.
Typically, somewhere between 40% and 60% of the floodwater that fills up the Sackville Bathtub comes from unimpeded, non-Warragamba sources. So, when the Hawkesbury-Nepean River floods, the bathtub is already quite full and causing significant problems before Warragamba begins to spill. The Warragamba water then raises the flood level, but often by only a couple of metres.
Raising Warragamba Dam’s wall as a mitigation measure will only control about half the floodwater, and won’t prevent major floods delivered by the Nepean and Grose rivers, which also feed into the region. This represents a small potential benefit for a very large cost.
A long flooding period is on our doorstep
The idea of drought-dominated and flood-dominated periods for the Hawkesbury-Nepean River system was proposed in the mid-1970s by the University of Sydney’s Robin Warner. Since the late 1990’s, it hasn’t been the focus of much research.
He showed a century-long cycle of alternating periods of dry weather and small floods followed by wet weather and big floods is normal for Sydney. This means the March flood may not have come as a surprise to older residents of the Sackville Bathtub, who have a lived experience of the whole 40-50 year flooding cycle.
As a rough average, one major flood occurred every four years during the last wet-weather period between 1950 and 1990. The largest of this period occurred in November 1961. It filled the Sackville Bathtub to a depth of 15 metres and — like the June 1964 (14.6 metres) and March 1978 (14.5 metres) events — caused more widespread flooding than this year’s flood.
We’re currently 30 years into a dry period, which may be about to end. Conditions might stay dry for another 10 or 20 years.
These cycles are likely caused by natural, long-term “climate drivers” — long-term climatic fluctuations such as El Niño and La Niña, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole, which are driven by oceanic current circulations. These global phenomena bring both benevolent weather and destructive weather to Australia.
Eastern Australia experiences decades-long periods of wetter weather when these climate drivers sync up with each other. When they’re out of sync, we get dry weather periods.
These long-term cycles are natural and have been operating for thousands of years, but climate change is amplifying and accelerating them. Dry periods are getting drier, wet periods are getting wetter.
The good news and bad news
The bad news is that 12-plus metre floods at Hawkesbury River (Windsor Bridge) are not all that unusual. There have been 24, 12-plus metre floods at Windsor Bridge since 1799.
The good news is meteorological forecasters are excellent at predicting when the storms that generate moderate, large and catastrophic floods are coming. We can expect several days’ to a week’s notice of the next big flood.
We can also prepare our individual and communal responses for more large and frequent floods on the Hawkesbury-Nepean. Residents of the area need to think about how they might live near the river as individuals. Decide what is precious and what you will fit into a car and trailer. Practice evacuating.
As a community, we must ensure the transport infrastructure and evacuation protocols minimise disruption to river and floodplain residents while maximising their safety. It’s particularly important we set up inclusive infrastructure to ensure disadvantaged people, who are disproportionately affected by disasters, also have a fighting chance to evacuate and survive.
Upgrading the escape routes that enable people to evacuate efficiently is absolutely vital. As is rethinking whether we should continue urban expansion in the Sackville Bathtub.
This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. Read the rest of the stories here.
Its observations in the wake of our Black Summer suggest the commission’s final report, due on October 28, may recommend a major shake-up of how disaster management is governed at the federal level. This includes setting up a national body focused on recovery from and resilience to future disasters.
Most initial observations are uncontroversial and sensible, but there is a glaring omission. It involves the most urgent measure to reduce the risk of future disasters: reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In my former role as the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, I saw first-hand the impacts of natural disasters, and nations’ efforts to build their climate change resilience. The royal commission process is a unique opportunity to accelerate progress in these areas, which are so critical for Australia’s future.
What’s in the report?
In February, the royal commission was tasked with finding ways to improve disaster management in three main areas:
- how the federal government coordinates with other levels of government
- resilience to climate change and mitigating disaster risk
- the laws governing the federal government response to national emergencies.
The initial observations touch on each of these areas. This includes the need to collate, harmonise and share disaster data across jurisdictions; enhance research in climate and disaster resilience; reassess aerial firefighting capabilities; and plan more effectively around critical infrastructure.
It’s also worth noting the royal commission hasn’t yet formed a view on a key change Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested was necessary in the wake of the bushfires: establishing the legal authority for the federal government to declare a national state of emergency. Currently, only state and territory governments have this power.
And controversially, the commission suggests the long-standing role of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) should be transferred to a federal government agency.
AFAC is a non-government organisation that facilitates the deployment of emergency personnel and equipment interstate and internationally. But the states and territories may not be willing to relinquish the engagement they have under the current arrangements.
Most importantly, the royal commission is considering consolidating disaster recovery and resilience functions in a new national body.
These functions reside in at least three agencies. They include Emergency Management Australia, the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, and the National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency.
Consolidation makes good sense as the recovery phase from disasters can contribute to strengthening resilience.
It’s also sensible to separate the resilience function from the disaster response function, currently led by Emergency Management Australia. In my experience, resilience work rarely gets the whole-of-government attention it deserves when it’s embedded in agencies focused around responding to emergencies.
Three months of disasters
After the devastation Black Summer wrought, it’s clear resilience to future disasters must start with action on climate change. So it’s disappointing the royal commission has not yet commented on the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible.
Although COVID-19 has masked our awareness of the rapidly increasing climate threat, the evidence — even over just the past three months — is overwhelming.
In June, the record was set for the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic. The associated unprecedented heatwave in Siberia contributed to massive bushfires razing an astonishing 20 million hectares.
While Siberia burned, severe floods devastated South Asia, China and Japan. One-third of Bangladesh was underwater, affecting almost 15 million people.
In China the figure was 63 million, with daily rainfall records set across the country. China’s Three Gorges Hydroelectric Dam, the world’s biggest, received the largest inflow of water in its history, prompting fears last week the dam would be breached.
In southern Japan, record-setting rains that dumped 1,000 millimetres of water in just three days forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Then, earlier this month, deadly fires erupted across California, exacerbated by persistent drought and record-setting temperatures. In just five days, the fires burned more land in the state than was destroyed in all of 2019.
We can’t ignore climate change
While it’s difficult to scientifically demonstrate that climate change “causes” any one disaster, the general direction is crystal clear. As the climate continues to warm, the frequency and severity of these events will increase.
We’re already seeing worrying signs of this in Queensland, our most hazard-prone state. Over the past three years, 53 of Queensland’s 77 local government areas have endured three or more major disasters. And 71 out of 77 local government areas have experienced two or more such events.
These communities are increasingly in the unsustainable situation of chronically recovering from disasters.
The prime minister has argued “Australia, on its own, cannot control the world’s climate, as Australia accounts for just 1.3% of global emissions”.
But because we’re disproportionately vulnerable to the threats of climate change, it’s imperative we convince other nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Our international advocacy will only be credible if we strengthen our own ambition to mitigate climate change. And as the government prepares to submit its updated targets under the Paris Climate Agreement, a recommendation to reduce emissions from the royal commission would be appropriate and extremely useful.
Australia is in the midst of inconceivably bad bushfires. The death toll is rising, thousands of buildings have been destroyed and whole communities displaced. This scale is like nothing before, and our national response must be like nothing that has come before.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday somewhat acknowledged the need for unprecedented action. He took the extraordinary step of calling up 3,000 Australian Defence Force reservists and mobilising navy ships and military bases to aid the emergency response. This has never before happened in Australia at this scale.
But it’s not enough. As this horrific summer of disaster continues to unfold in coming weeks, we clearly need to overhaul our emergency management plan with a workforce that’s large, nationally mobile, fully funded, and paid – rather than using under-resourced volunteers.
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction says weather and climate related disasters have more than doubled over the last 40 years.
Although expensive, the cost of not acting on disaster risk, planning and preparation will be greatly outstripped by the cost of future climate and weather catastrophes.
Our disaster management system needs upgrading
The states and territories are primarily responsible for disaster preparedness and response. Typically, the federal government has no direct responsibility, but lends a hand when asked through a variety of programs, policies and initiatives.
This may have worked in the past. But with ever larger and more complex disasters, these arrangements are no longer fit for purpose.
Our national emergency management workforce is largely made up of volunteers, who are stretched to the bone, exhausted and some say, under-resourced.
What’s more, experts led by former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner Greg Mullins have called for significant changes in Australia’s disaster management preparedness and response. They’ve signalled the need for new resources, policies and processes to tackle more frequent and complex disasters.
We’ve also seen how consultation and collaboration between the Commonwealth and states are not working smoothly.
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons only learned that Defence reservists would be deployed when it was reported in the media. And it wasn’t immediately clear how new reservists would be integrated into existing response activities.
Finding a bipartisan way forward
The decade-long ideological battle between the left and right of Australian politics has paralysed climate policy development. This cannot continue.
Well-funded disaster preparedness and response inevitably builds resilience to climate change and extreme weather events like bushfires. This is something both sides of politics agree on – in fact, it was noted in the federal government’s own recent report profiling our vulnerability to disasters and climate change.
Aside from needing bipartisanship, an overhaul of Australia’s disaster management will require money. While we’re lucky to have a dedicated, paid and exceptional set of state and territory disaster and emergency management agencies such as the NSW Rural Fire Service, most heavy lifting is done by agency volunteers.
But with fire seasons starting earlier and lasting longer, we can no longer rely for months at a time on volunteers who must also work, pay their bills and feed their families.
We need a larger, paid, trained, professional emergency management workforce. I reject claims that such a workforce would stand idle most of the year. Severe weather seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer, so these professionals will be busy.
The workforce could be divided in to areas of expertise to tackle specific disaster types, and focus on different aspects of the disaster cycle such as prevention and preparation. These continue year-round.
Alternatively, volunteers could be compensated through direct payments for lost income, tax offsets for volunteers and their employers, or rent or mortgage assistance.
What’s more, a new national disaster management approach must intersect with state and local governments to help reduce disaster risk.
These might include contributing to land-use zoning plans, building design and standards for construction in at-risk areas, or building partnerships with the private sector.
Funding disaster preparedness
All this will cost money. Australia must accept that taxpayers will pay for future disaster preparedness, response and recovery. We need a bucket of cash for when disasters strike. Scott Morrison yesterday announced A$2 billion for recovery, but disaster funds should be ongoing.
This would be no different to the national Medical Future Research Fund – a A$20 billion fund to focus on solving nationally important medical issues funded through savings from the health budget.
There are several ways the money could be gathered. Commonwealth, state and territory governments could rethink their insistence on achieving budget surpluses, and instead spend money on a disaster fund. A “disaster levy” could be applied to household rates bills, a tax on carbon introduced, or planned tax cuts for middle and high income earners abandoned.
The public could also contribute to the fund directly. The ABC’s recent Australia Talks survey found on average, Australians would be willing to chip in A$200 each per year to pay for adaptation to climate change. If every Australian contributed, there’s another A$5 billion per year for the fund.
Future disaster management will require Australia to step up. It means making hard choices about what we want the future to be like, how we’ll pay for that, and what level of risk we are prepared to tolerate. It also means demanding that our leaders deliver meaningful climate change adaptation, including disaster planning.
A flood-ravaged Townsville has captured public attention, highlighting the vulnerability of many of our cities to flooding. The extraordinary amount of rain is just one aspect of the disaster in Queensland’s third-biggest city. The flooding, increasing urban density, the management of the Ross River Dam, and the difficulties of dealing with byzantine insurance regulations have left the community with many questions about their future.
These questions won’t be resolved until we enhance the resilience of cities and communities against flooding. Adaptation needs to become an integral part of living with the extremes of the Australian environment. I discuss how to design and create resilient urban landscapes later in this article.
Flood risk and insurance
Another issue that affects many households and businesses is the relationship between insurance claims and 1-in-100-year flood event overlay maps. Projected rises in flood risks under climate change have led to concerns that parts of Townsville and other cities will become “uninsurable” should the costs of cover become prohibitive for property owners.
Council flood data used for urban planning and land-use strategies is also used by insurers to assess the flood risk to individual properties. Insurers then price the risk accordingly.
However, in extraordinary circumstances, when the flooded land is actually larger than the area marked by the flood overlay map, complications emerge. In fact, that part of the community living outside the map’s boundaries is considered flood-free. Thus, those pockets of the community may have chosen not to have flood insurance and not have emergency plans, which leaves them even worse off after floods. This is happening in Townsville.
Yet this is nothing new. Many people experienced very similar circumstances in 2011. Flood waters covered as much land as Germany and France combined. Several communities were left on their knees.
Notwithstanding the prompt and vast response of the federal government and Queensland’s state authorities, a few years later Townsville is going through something alarmingly similar.
Adaptation to create resilient cities
To find a solution, we need to rethink how to implement the Queensland Emergency Risk Management Framework. That is no easy task. However, it starts with shifting the perspective on what is considered a risk – in this case, a flooding event.
Floods, per se, are not a natural disaster. Floods are part of the natural context of Queensland as can be seen below, for instance, in the Channel Country.
The concept of adaptation as a built-in requirement of living in this environment then becomes pivotal. In designing and developing future-ready cities, we must aim to build resilient communities.
This is the ambitious project I am working on. It involves different figures and expertise with a shared vision and the support of government administrations that are willing to invest in a future beyond their elected term of office.
Ideas for Gold Coast Resilientscape
I live and work in the City of Gold Coast. Water is a fundamental part of the city’s character and beauty. In addition to the ocean, a complex system of waterways shapes a unique urban environment. However, this also exposes the city to a series of challenges, including flooding.
Last September, an updated flood overlay map was made available to the community. The map takes into account the projections of a 0.8 metre increase in the sea level and 10% increases in storm tide intensity and rainfall intensity.
These factors are reflected in the 1-in-100-year flood overlay. It shows undoubtedly that the boundaries between land and water are changeable.
Building walls between the city and water as the primary flood protection strategy is not a solution. A rigid border can actually intensify the catastrophe. New Orleans and the levee failures during the passage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 provide a stark illustration of this.
Instead, what would happen and what would our cities look like if we designed green and public infrastructures that embody flooding as part of the natural context of our cities and territory?
The current project, titled RESILIENTSCAPE: A Landscape for Gold Coast Urban Resilience, considers the role of architecture in enhancing the resilience of cities and communities against flooding. The proposal, in a nutshell, explores the possibilities that urban landscape design and implementation provide for resilience.
RESILIENTSCAPE focuses on the Nerang River catchment and the Gold Coast Regional Botanic Gardens, in the suburb of Benowa. The river and gardens were adopted as a case study for a broader strategy that aims to promote architectural solutions for a resilient City of Gold Coast. The project investigates the possibility of using existing green pockets along the Nerang River to store and retain excess water during floods.
These green spaces, however, will not just serve as “water tanks”. If mindfully planned, the green spaces can double up as public parks and facilities. This would enrich the community’s social realm and maximise their use and return on investment.
The design of a landscape responsive to flooding can, by improving local urban resilience, dramatically change the impact of these events.
The goal of creating urban areas that are adaptive to an impermanent water landscape is the main driver of the project. New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and New York after Sandy are investing heavily in this direction and promoting international design competitions and community participation to mould a more resilient future. Queensland, what are we waiting for?
This article has been updated to clarify the use of flood data by insurers in assessing risk and the cost of cover.
The Chinese government will be reopening the nation’s domestic rhino horn trade, overturning a ban that has stood since 1993. An outcry since the announcement has led to the postponement of the lifting of the ban, which currently remains in place.
The case for introducing rhinos to Australia
The directive, if instituted, would require that rhino horn be sourced sustainably from farmed animals and that its use is limited to traditional Chinese medicine, scientific and medical research, preserving antique cultural artefacts, and as educational materials.
The announcement has been widely condemned. The United Nations Environmental Program called it “alarming”. But done carefully and correctly, and with necessary international consultation, it doesn’t have to add to the threat to rhinos. Indeed, it could even support rhino conservation.
Rhino horns regrow and can be sustainably and humanely harvested from live animals. Those arguing for legalisation say that a well-regulated trade could be a source of funding for expensive rhino conservation. It could also help reduce poverty and support development around protected areas.
A legal trade could also provide an alternative supply of horns, where income goes to legitimate conservation and development efforts, rather than to criminals, which is currently the case.
Rhino horn for medicinal use
The directive from Beijing stipulates that rhino horn for medicinal use must come from rhinos bred specifically outside of zoos (such as at dedicated horn-farming facilities). The ground-up horn powder would then be certified under a scheme developed by a coalition of Chinese regulatory agencies.
These agencies should draw from China’s experience regulating the medicinal use of pangolin scales to make sure poached horn does not infiltrate the legal marketplace. Though strictly controlled since 2008, illegal pangolin products continue to be seized frequently throughout China.
According to the directive, the medicinal use of rhino horn will be restricted to treating urgent, serious and rare diseases. This is consistent with what traditional Chinese medicine practitioners see as the appropriate application of rhino horn. Strict guides for clinical application will be needed to prevent misuse and overuse, particularly given the length of time that rhino horn has been unavailable to law-abiding clinicians.
Existing rhino horn stocks
Beyond medicine, the directive stipulates that people who already own horns will be able to declare their stocks. The government will then issue identification and certification records. After this, the horns must be sealed and stored safely, and not traded under any circumstances, barring gift-giving and inheritance.
This part of the directive is particularly concerning, as such a scheme will be complex, potentially giving owners of poached rhino horns smuggled into China a get-out-of-jail-free card. Lessons should be learned from the ivory trade in Hong Kong, where poached ivory has been laundered into legal stocks thanks to inadequate record-keeping and lax enforcement.
This section of the directive also raises concerns about the development of a socially accepted practice of gifting rhino horn akin to that of Vietnam. There, rhino horn has been found to be given as a gift for terminally ill family members and in business settings, where horns are offered as bribes to government officials. Strict enforcement will essential if China is to make sure illegal trading under the guise of gifts is not to spread.
Working with China
China will have to work with countries where rhinos live, including range states in both Asia and in Africa, as well as other rhino conservation stakeholders around the world. Swaziland and South Africa have previously proposed legalising the international trade in horn as a mechanism to fund and bolster conservation efforts.
Domestic trade in horn is legal in South Africa, and China and South Africa will have to coordinate to make sure their domestic marketplaces support rhino conservation and don’t enable transnational laundering and trade.
Beijing’s decision has certainly attracted immediate and fierce criticism from some conservation and animal welfare organisations. This criticism is exacerbated by different moral perspectives. Some people see the sale and consumption of rhino horn to fund conservation as morally repulsive. For others, it is legitimate and pragmatic.
Whichever side of the debate you stand on, the priority should be conservation outcomes and making sure that China’s newly legalised domestic horn trade strengthens rather than dangerously undermines rhino protection efforts. Rhino conservationists will need to find common ground with Beijing. This requires an appreciation of different cultural and moral values, and the use of evidence on how to minimise risks to rhino under the directive.
Responding to the widespread criticism, Chinese officials clarified that the implementation of the directive will be postponed. The government has also launched a short-term enforcement drive against illegal trading of rhino horn, which will run until the end of the year.
While heightened enforcement actions are welcome, it indicates that China can do much more to tackle illegal wildlife trade. China must strictly enforce its own regulations once its domestic horn trade has been opened.
Postponing implementation gives Beijing time to develop a detailed and robust set of regulations. Now is the time for rhino range states, conservation scientists and concerned groups around the world to work with Beijing so that the impending domestic horn trade in China can be a positive for rhino conservation.
Hubert Cheung, PhD Candidate in Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University, and Yifu Wang, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
Chinese and Indian competition on their shared Himalayan border is more likely to create a slow-moving environmental catastrophe than a quick military or nuclear disaster.
The Himalayan plateau plays a crucial role in Asia. It generates the monsoonal rains and seasonal ice-melts that feed rivers and deliver nutrients to South, Southeast and East Asia. Almost half the world’s population and 20% of its economy depend on these rivers, and they are already threatened by climate change. China and India’s competition for their headwaters increases this threat.
Until the mid-20th century, the Himalaya’s high altitude prevented its large-scale development and conserved its environment. But after the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China were created in the late 1940s, these two new states began competing for high ground in the western and eastern Himalayas. They fought a war over their unresolved border in 1962, and have scuffled ever since. The most recent clash was in 2017, when China built a road into Doklam, an area claimed by Bhutan and protected by India.
Tensions rose again last week when China unveiled a new mine in Lhunze, near the de facto border with India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, east of Bhutan. The mine sits on a deposit of gold, silver and other precious metals worth up to US$60 billion.
Most analysis of the Sino-Indian border dispute has focused on the potential for another war between these two nuclear-armed neighbours. The environmental impacts of their continued entrenchment are rarely mentioned, despite the fact that they are significant and growing.
All of this development along the border is built on the world’s third-largest ice-pack or in biodiversity hotspots. The region was militarised during the 1962 war, and has since been inundated by troops, roads, airports, barracks and hospitals. These have caused deforestation, landslides, and – if a study on troop movements on other glaciers is any guide – possibly even glacial retreat.
The buildup of troops on the border has displaced local ethnic groups, and they have been encouraged to give up their land to make way for intensive farming. Animal habitats have decreased and clashes with tigers and snow leopards have increased. Population transfers and agricultural intensification have even heightened the risk that antibiotic-resistant superbugs and other toxic pollutants will seep into the world’s most diffused watershed.
During the past 20 years, first China and then India have increased this degradation by building large-scale mines and hydroelectric dams in this sensitive region. These projects have not been profitable or environmentally sound, but they have solidified state control by entrenching populations, upgrading transport networks, and integrating these fringes into national economies. The tightening of state control along the border has been further complicated by calls from the Tibetans and other ethnic groups for greater autonomy.
Many of the projects have been developed within the transnational Brahmaputra River basin. This river’s headwaters are in China, but most of its catchment is in Arunachal Pradesh, which is controlled by India but claimed by China. It then flows through Assam and Bangladesh, where it joins the Ganges River. Some 630 million people live in the Ganges-Brahmaputra River catchment.
China and India’s geopolitical resources rush threatens the safety of this entire river system. The new Lhunze mine’s position among the Brahmaputra’s headwaters is so precarious that its owner, Hua Yu Mining, was only allowed to mine there under strict environmental conditions. To its credit, Hua Yu has agreed to be a “green” miner, limiting emissions, water use and minimising “grassland disturbance”. But even if the company does not inadvertently leak acid and arsenic into the environment like other mines in Tibet, the mine is still liable to be damaged by the region’s frequent earthquakes. Any toxic leak from Lhunze will flow straight into the Brahmaputra and then into the lower Ganges.
On its side of the border, India has concentrated on dams rather than mines. Between 2000 and 2016, the Arunachal Pradesh government approved the construction of 153 dams, before realising that it had overextended itself.
So far only one dam is complete, and all the other projects have stalled. One of these stalled dams is on the Subansiri River, the same river from which the Lhunze mine draws water. India is racing to build these dams without community consultation or environmental studies because it sees itself as competing with China for the region’s water. China has already built four dams in the upper Brahmaputra River basin.
Indian strategists argue that they can stop China building more dams by building hydroelectric projects whose need for water will be recognised under international law. Given China’s dismissal of previous rulings by the International Court of Justice, and its recent refusal to share water-flow data with India after the Doklam incident (data that India needs to plan flood controls), this strategy seems unlikely to succeed.
Even if it does, it is hard to see how building large hydropower projects in an earthquake-probne region will ultimately help India. It won’t stop China developing the borderland, and it could cause more problems than it solves.
To keep Asia’s major rivers flowing and relatively non-toxic, both nations need to stop competing and start collaborating. Their leaders understand that neither nation would win a nuclear war. Now they need to realise that no one will benefit from destroying a shared watershed.