Acs coastal resilience and adaptation

During this past year, I have had the opportunity of working once again with Don Wright, formerly a colleague at Sydney University now based in Florida. Don and colleagues have been involved in producing collaborative reports in the USA through the Coastal Environmental Research Committee of the Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA). Much of their thinking is in a book published by Springer (2019) entitled: Tomorrow’s Coasts: Complex and Impermanent (L.D. Wright and C. Reid Nichols, Eds.). I was an author of two chapters, one is with Don on Promoting resilience of tomorrow’s impermanent coasts (Ch.21).

In this chapter we discuss ways to minimise the detrimental impacts of global change on tomorrow’s coastal systems. This includes actions which embed coastal science into law: “The aim must be to ensure that regional coastal strategies are based on the best available science to reduce risk to built and natural assets from the adverse effects of short-term practices driven by local vested interests” (p.341). This is just one aspect of the broader interest in this book which states: A high priority vision for future coastal science should be to enhance resilience of coastal communities by anticipating and mitigating hazards to human health, safety and welfare and reducing economic harm to coastal industries such as tourism, fisheries and shipping (p.343). In this context natural ecosystems provide a source of enhanced resilience. But what is resilience?

At one level, the contributing authors of this book see resilience as the capacity to change and adapt continually yet remain viable (p.21). The Stockholm Resilience Centre is quoted: “Resilience thinking embraces learning, diversity and above all the belief that humans and nature are strongly coupled to the point that they should be conceived as one social-ecological system” (p.343). Many of the chapters look at tomorrow’s coasts from the perspective of interconnected agents of coastal change operating within dynamic and complex coastal systems.

Don and his team more recently have developed a paper where they explore further the concept of resilience, in particular the need to develop tools to better observe and predict change and so enable resilience. Their work from the US National Academies report on disaster resilience (2012) sees resilience as the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events. They stress that resilience does not imply returning to the way things were before an adverse or extreme event. The process of recovery can mean adjusting infrastructure, relocating housing or altering socio-economic behaviour. They say that of paramount importance is the notion of preparing for natural hazards.

I was reminded of all this on Wednesday 2 January when the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald ran the headline: Sydney suburbs exposed to threat of natural disasters. The “exclusive” article is based on data compiled by SGS Economics and Planning; their study breaks down “natural peril risk levels” at local council area and potential economic impact from a natural disaster. They comment that all governments focus too much on post-disaster reconstruction while under-investing in disaster mitigation strategies arguing that it should be a national priority to “rebalance this spending allocation”. This point is not new. We even have had a Productivity Commission report saying the same thing. The coastal reform process in NSW is oriented towards this outcome through councils developing and implementing Coastal Management Programs (CMPs) through understanding immediate and long-term impacts of seven coastal natural hazards. This year will give us an opportunity to put in place state and hopefully national programs, like the CMPs, to help mitigate the inevitable impact of extreme natural events that can only get worse as we further enter the new climate era.