Set up national air fleet to fight fires, says royal commission, warning of worsening weather



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Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Australia should develop a national aerial fire fighting capability and fuel load management strategies should be more transparent, the inquiry set up following last summer’s devastating bushfires has recommended.

In its 80 recommendations, including many shared between federal and state governments, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements calls for a bigger federal role in dealing with disasters but stresses

there are compelling reasons for state and territory governments to continue to be responsible for disaster management.

The 2019-20 fires took 33 lives, nine of them firefighters including three Americans.

The recommendations are aimed at increasing national co-ordination to prepare better for natural disasters, respond more rapidly (including through the army), and ensure the recovery is focused on making communities more resilient.

Natural disasters have changed, and so must the management arrangements, the report says.

Extreme weather has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable. Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise.

Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.

But the report does not make recommendations on climate change policy.

Calling for a “national” approach to natural disasters, the commission says this doesn’t mean the federal government taking over, but rather a “whole of nation” level of cooperation and effort.




Read more:
To reduce disasters, we must cut greenhouse emissions. So why isn’t the bushfire royal commission talking about this?


As part of playing a greater role, the federal government should be able to declare “a state of national emergency”.

A declaration should be the catalyst for a quicker, clearer and more pre-emptive mobilisation of federal resources but should not give the federal government power to determine how state resources are to be used, the report says.

While usually a state or territory would have asked for help, “in some limited circumstances” the federal government should be able to take action during a natural disaster, “whether or not a state has requested assistance”.

In the bushfire crisis, there was tension between the NSW and federal governments over the deployment of military personnel.

The commission’s recommendations on the controversial issue of fuel loads concentrate on questions of clarity.

Public land managers should clearly convey and make available to the public their fuel load management strategies, including the rationale behind them, as well as report annually on the implementation and outcomes of those strategies,“ the reports says.

It also says governments should review the assessment and approval processes on vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction to make it clear what landholders and land managers need to do and minimise the time taken for assessments and approvals.

On air capability, the report says all Australian governments should develop a “modest, Australian-based and registered, national aerial firefighting capability”. This would be made up of “more specialised platforms … to supplement the aerial firefighting capability of the states and territories”.




Read more:
The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow


After some anger at charities’ use of money donated for bushfire victims, the commission has said federal, state and territory governments should create a single national scheme for the regulation of charitable fundraising.

The Minister for Emergency Management David Littleproud said cabinet would consider the report next week.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow



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David Bowman, University of Tasmania

The bushfire royal commission today handed down its long-awaited final report. At almost 1,000 pages, it will take us all some time to digest. But it marks the start of Australia’s national disaster adaptation journey after a horrendous summer.

The report clearly signals the urgent need to improve disaster management capacity in Australia. Closer examination of the report will determine if other recommendations are needed. But overall, this seems a realistic report that incorporates a diverse and complex body of evidence. And it arrives at recommendations likely to enjoy broad political, institutional and community support.

As the report states, the 2019-2020 bushfires were the catalyst for, but not the sole focus of, the inquiry. It also looked at floods, bushfires, earthquakes, storms, cyclones, storm surges, landslides and tsunamis.

The recommendations demonstrate the Royal Commission is serious about shifting the status quo when it comes to managing Australia’s natural disasters – events that will become more frequent and severe under climate change. What’s needed now is political will for change.

Wildlife rescuer saves a koala from a forest fire.
Australia endured its own bushfire disaster just months ago.
David Mariuz/AAP

A picture of devastation

The commission received evidence from more than 270 witnesses, almost 80,000 pages of tendered documents and more than 1,750 public submissions. It recaps the damage wrought, including:

  • more than 24 million hectares burnt nationally

  • 33 human deaths (and perhaps many more due to smoke haze over much of eastern Australia)

  • more than 3,000 homes destroyed

  • thousands of locals and holidaymakers trapped

  • communities isolated without power, communications, and ready access to essential goods and services

  • estimated national financial impacts over A$10 billion

  • nearly three billion animals killed or displaced

  • many threatened species and other ecological communities extensively harmed.

The report noted every state and territory suffered fire to some extent, adding “on some days, extreme conditions drove a fire behaviour that was impossible to control”.

A new role for national government

The scope of the commission’s recommendations is vast. For government, it would mean changes across land-use planning, infrastructure, emergency management, social policy, agriculture, education, physical and mental health, community development, energy and the environment.

Broad areas of recommended change include a clearer leadership role for the federal government and establishing a national natural disaster management agency. The report notes while state and territory governments have primary responsibility for emergency management, during the bushfire crisis the public “expected greater Australian Government action”.

Other recommendations include:

  • nationally consolidating aerial firefighting capacity

  • more capacity in local government

  • nationally consistent warnings including air pollution (especially bushfire smoke) forecasts

  • acknowledgement of the role of Indigenous fire managers in mitigating bushfire risks.

The commission says preparing for natural disasters “is not the sole domain of governments and agencies”. Individuals and communities must also ensure they’re prepared. As the commission notes:

While we heard that some individuals and communities were well prepared for the 2019-2020 bushfire season, this was not always the case. For other individuals and communities, although they did prepare, the intensity of the bushfires meant that no level of preparation would have been sufficient. For others, they were seemingly unprepared for what confronted them.

The inquiry said governments have a critical role to play here, by providing information on disaster risks through community education and engagement programs.

The climate question

During last summer’s bushfire crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was reluctant to draw links to climate change. And before the inquiry commenced, there was much doubt over whether it would adequately probe how climate change is contributing to natural disasters.

Significantly, the commission’s final report explicitly recognises climate change increases the risk and impact of natural disasters. It says global warming beyond the next 20 to 30 years “is largely dependent on the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions”, but stops far short of calling for federal government action on emissions reduction.

The report says extreme weather “has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable”. It goes on:

Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.

Among its recommendations, the report calls for improved national climate and weather intelligence to support governments to implement, assess and review their disaster management and climate adaptation strategies.

Now’s the time to act

The commission acknowledged most of its recommendations identify what needs to be done, rather than how it should be done.

The commission also says while governments and others have backed the notion of improving natural disaster resilience, “support is one thing – action is another”. And the time to act, the report says, is now.

This is a key point. As noted by the report, more than 240 inquiries about natural disasters have been held in Australia to date. Many would have been time-consuming and expensive. And while many recommendations have been implemented and have led to significant improvements, the report said, “others have not”.




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So will this royal commission lead to substantive change? The inquiry suggests this will require that governments “commit to action and cooperate and hold each other to account”. Further, progress towards implementing the recommendations should be publicly monitored.

Fundamentally, political appetite will determine whether the royal commission’s recommendations ever become reality. There is much work to be done by governments and others to iron out the legal, administrative, social and practical complexities of changing the status quo. And the Morrison government has given next to no indication it’s willing to seriously tackle the problem of climate change.

Ultimately, these findings are small steps towards achieving natural disaster reliance. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this report can be read not as the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning of the long road to climate change adaptation.The Conversation

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Damning royal commission report leaves no doubt that we all lose if the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails


Jamie Pittock, Australian National University

In the wake of revelations of water theft, fish kills, and towns running out of water, the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin has reported that the Basin Plan must be strengthened if there is to be any hope of saving the river system, and the communities along it, from a bleak future.

Evidence uncovered by the Royal Commission showed systemic failures in the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The damning report must trigger action by all governments and bodies involved in managing the basin.

The Basin Plan was adopted in 2012 to address overallocation of water to irrigated farming at the expense of the environment, river towns, Traditional Owners, and the pastoral and tourism industries.

The Commission has made 111 findings and 44 recommendations that accuse federal agencies of maladministration, and challenge key policies that were pursued in implementing the plan.




Read more:
Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


What did the report find?

The commission found that the Basin Plan breached federal water laws by applying a “triple bottom line” trade-off of environmental and socioeconomic values, rather than prioritising environmental sustainability and then optimising socio-economic outcomes.

I and my colleagues in the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists provided evidence to the commission from our independent assessment of the Basin Plan in 2017, which the commission’s findings reflect.

Contrary to current government practices, the Commission recommendations include:

  • prioritising environmental sustainability
  • basing the plan on transparent science
  • acquiring more water for the environment through direct purchase from farmers
  • meeting the water needs of the Basin’s 40 Indigenous nations
  • ensuring that state governments produce competent subsidiary plans and comply with agreements to remove constraints to inundating floodplain wetlands
  • addressing the impacts of climate change
  • improving monitoring and compliance of Basin Plan implementation.

Resilience in decline

The Murray-Darling Basin is not just a food bowl. It is a living ecosystem that depends on interconnected natural resources. It also underpins the livelihoods of 2.6 million people and agricultural production worth more than A$24 billion.

The continued health of the basin and its economy depends on a healthy river – which in turns means healthy water flows. Like much of Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin is subject to periods of “droughts and flooding rains”. But over the past century the extraction of water, especially for irrigation, has reduced river flows to a point at which the natural system can no longer recover from these extremes.

That lack of resilience is evidenced by the current Darling River fish kills. More broadly, overextraction risks the health of the entire basin, and its capacity to sustain productive regional economies for future generations.

From the perspective of the Wentworth Group, we support the commission’s main recommendations, including increasing pressure on recalcitrant state governments to responsibly deliver their elements of the plan, and to refocus on the health of the river.

We particularly support recommendations related to the use of the best available science in decision-making, including for managing declining water availability under a changing climate.

We welcome the recommendation to reassess the sustainable levels of water extraction so as to comply with the Commonwealth Water Act. These must be constructed with a primary focus on the environment.

In line with this, the 70 billion litre reduction in environmental water from the northern basin adopted by parliament in 2018 should be immediately repealed. So should the ban on direct buyback of water from farmers for the environment.

We also recognise that the Basin Plan’s water recovery target is insufficient to restore health to the environment and prevent further damage, and would welcome an increase in the target above 3,200 billion litres.




Read more:
A good plan to help Darling River fish recover exists, so let’s get on with it


South Australian Premier Steven Marshall has taken a welcome first step in calling for a Council of Australian Governments meeting to discuss the commission’s findings. Our governments need to avoid the temptation to legislate away the politically inconvenient failings exposed by the commission, and instead act constructively and implement its recommendations.

This is not only a challenge for the current conservative federal government. The Labor side of politics needs to address its legacy in establishing the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Basin Plan, as well as the Victorian government’s role in frustrating the plan’s implementation by failing to remove constraints to environmental water flows.

Now, more than ever, we need strong leadership. If the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails, we all lose.The Conversation

Jamie Pittock, Professor, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New Royal Commission into water theft may be just the tip of iceberg for the Murray Darling Basin


Jamie Pittock, Australian National University

Last weekend South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate breaches of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement.

This follows apparently egregious behaviour by some irrigators and state government regulators in New South Wales. Yet the alleged theft of water in the Murray-Darling Basin is only the tip of the iceberg when we consider the institutional problems – namely the capture of state government agencies by powerful irrigation interests.

Take NSW as an example. In 1993 the then state Department of Water Resources’ North west rivers audit found the same theft, meter-tampering and questionable government oversight exposed again by the ABC’s Four Corners investigation in July.

Only half of the targeted volume of salt has been flushed out to sea and the water supply to Broken Hill and other communities has become unreliable. Moreover, floodplain forests and wetlands of international significance continue to decline, and native fish and water bird populations have flatlined.

In fact, many values are at risk in the river system that supplies water to more than 3 million people, and covers a seventh of Australia’s landmass. It is not only a few (alleged) bad apples, it is governance of water that is broken.

Problems with the existing plan

While bad behaviour in NSW is evident, of more concern is the way some state governments are frustrating implementation of the A$13 billion 2012-26 Basin Plan and associated programs to recover water for the river system.

If the Basin Plan is to improve the health of the river and its extensive floodplain forests along the lower River Murray, the water recovered for the environment needs to be released in pulses. That will be the best way to ensure it can rise out of the river channel and inundate wetlands.


Read more: Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan broken?


In this context it is unhelpful for the Victorian Government to propose flows of around half the previously agreed size because of the objections of a small number of landowners along the Goulburn River in its Goulburn key focus area project.

Upstream, state governments have rules that allow water purchased by taxpayers for the river to be extracted by irrigators when it crosses state borders. However, they are failing to remove bottlenecks that prevent managed floods from travelling safely down rivers. They have even proposed to reduce the water available for the environment below minimum requirements.

Astonishingly, 30% of water extraction points in the Basin are still not metered and the information that is collected is not publicly available or audited so that theft can be penalised.

Sustainable management required

Sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin requires trust and cooperation among the responsible state, ACT and federal governments.

The alleged water theft in NSW breaks that trust, especially for SA as the downstream state that relies on the River Murray. But so too does the stalling of implementation of the Basin Plan agreement and manipulation of the rules that govern who gets what water and when they get it.


Read more: ‘Tax returns for water’: satellite-audited statements can save the Murray-Darling


The foundation of trust is transparency. As a start, there are many opportunities for online recording of water allocations and use to increase trust. It is still possible to fix implementation of the Plan.

In a report released yesterday the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists has identified several solutions, including metering all water diversions, completing water recovery, and investing in regional development.

The good news is that there are signs of political leadership. The Council of Australian Governments promised in June to deliver the Basin Plan “in full and on time” for its planned commencement in 2019.

Recently, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recommitted the federal government to Basin Plan implementation. He endorsed the far-reaching recommendations of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Basin-wide Compliance Review to strengthen enforcement of water laws and the Basin Plan, and to recover the remaining environmental water.

The SA Royal Commission

Beginning in 2018, Weatherill’s newly announced Royal Commission will investigate breaches of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement, and the Commissioner “will examine the adequacy of existing legislation and practices and make recommendations for any necessary changes.”

Most significantly, Weatherill has proposed going beyond water theft to “look into whether any legislative or policy changes since the agreement was signed in 2012 have been inconsistent with the purpose of the Basin Agreement and Basin Plan”.


Read more: We need more than just extra water to save the Murray-Darling Basin


The Royal Commission’s terms of reference are not yet available and the extent of cooperation of upstream governments is highly uncertain (NSW has already said it will not cooperate). Yet the Royal Commission could help identify ways to better meter and account for water, improve compliance and set rules to protect environmental water.

At the next Basin Ministerial Council meeting later this year the governments need to map out measures to put the Plan back on track. If it can do so, it will be endorsed at the Council of Australian Governments in 2018. This is their opportunity to articulate precisely how they will fulfil their commitment to delivering the basin plan in full and on time.

The ConversationThe Murray-Darling Basin Plan is not perfect. Implementation has problems, but with the remaining $5.1 billion allocated funds and proper leadership it can be well implemented to benefit both people and the environment.

Jamie Pittock, Director, International Programs, UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.