By Dr. Palitha Kohona
CANBERRA, Australia, Feb 4 2020 (IPS)
I love visiting Canberra in the summer. The air is clean. The
water in lake Burley Griffin is crystal clear and the “go
boats” merrily bob up and down with their wine sipping occupants
while black swans frolic in peace.
Canberrans, who are habitually relaxed, become more friendly.
Clothes worn become decidedly casual and barely adequate.
BBQs get lit and the smell of burnt meat and beer induced
laughter pervade the backyards. And the “laid back like a lizard
on a summer’s day” becomes more than a casual expression.
But this year was different. Summer temperatures continued to
establish new records. The capital clocked up an unprecedented 43
degrees Celsius, a figure more familiar in Middle Eastern
Bush fires have continued to ravage the countryside for months,
destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and farm land
(an area bigger than Scotland has been consumed by the flames so
far) and thousands of houses.
The Canberra airport was closed for an afternoon due to the
threat posed by an expanding grass fire close by.
Farm animals, by the thousands, have perished in the intense
heat and insurance claims are expected to exceed one billion
Dollars. Millions of native animals, some endangered, have also
been wiped out.
Thick smoke caused by the fires blanketed major cities,
including Canberra, turning day into night in this normally sun
swept land of clear skies, raising fears of possible long-term
On some days, the air quality in the capital Canberra, was
considered to be the worst in any capital city in the world.
Restaurants suffered seriously with customers staying at home in
droves due to the thick smoke hovering over the city.
The Rose sipping sophisticates just stayed at home. Adding
insult to injury, a cricket match at the Manuka Oval in the city
was cancelled due to the smoke.
The simmering debate on climate change boiled over, even raising
concern in Davos, but the deniers, some in high places, continued
to shy away from the hard issues, issues that are likely to impact
on the future of our planet.
An unbelievably ferocious hail storm seriously damaged over
30,000 cars in Canberra and resulted in a flood of insurance
claims. The city, nay the country, is not equipped to deal with so
many modes of transport being damaged in such a short period.
Certainly. it will not be possible to replace the damaged cars
any time soon. The city may have to adopt innovative solutions to
cope with this challenge, including expanding its fleet of buses
and even providing free rides. Canberra, enamoured with the private
car for so long, may have to get used to public buses and even
using the much- denigrated light rail service.
Canberra folk might even begin to tolerate an additional few
minutes in daily travel time, which is not even an issue in other
capital cities! It may even be a blessing in disguise providing
more texting and emailing time for the commuter without running
afoul of the police.
A chorus of messages of sympathy poured in from world leaders.
The world was genuinely shocked at what Australia was experiencing.
But it was heartening that the country, faced with this
unprecedented catastrophe, rallied quickly and methodically set
about the task of containing the fires, rebuilding and
The example set to the world was truly impressive. Many good
practices were actually implemented.
Much has been said about what could be done to avoid or at least
minimize damage of this nature in the future, not only in Australia
but elsewhere in the world where unexpectedly severe natural
phenomena have begun to cause widespread disruption to the lives of
ordinary people and national economies. The debate will
But to facilitate discussion, and the possible adoption of
appropriate measures in response in the future, we will propose
some ideas gleaned from Australia’s experience and experiences
elsewhere in the world. Bush fires in Australia will continue to
occur in the future. Some will be more devastating than others.
Why not establish a centrally controlled dedicated fund to be
accessed only in the event of a major natural disaster, especially
bush fires. Other natural disasters like droughts, floods and
tsunamis also can be covered.
This will be in the nature of a fund controlled by the central
government and will obviate the need to scamper around to locate
monetary resources after the event. In Australia and other federal
jurisdictions, the primary responsibility for dealing with natural
disasters will remain with the constituent states.
An interstate mechanism with individuals with experience and
expertise in the field which could be activated at short notice
might also help. A rich country like Australia should be capable of
setting aside resources for this purpose given that natural
disasters seem to be happening at all too frequent intervals.
Likewise, in Australia, the federal government could acquire a
reserve of equipment, fire trucks, fixed wing aero planes,
helicopters and other equipment to be kept ready to respond quickly
in an emergency. The need to obtain equipment at short notice from
overseas can thus be obviated.
What is more, Australia’s reserve stock of equipment could be
lent to other countries in emergency situations. The occurrence of
major forest fires has become a noticeable summer phenomenon in the
northern hemisphere also. Tsunamis, floods, forest fires, etc occur
regularly elsewhere in the region. While, it may be possible to
recover the cost of making equipment available, the goodwill
generated would also be considerable.
Operators of such equipment could be trained in advance. They
could be members of the civil defense force who could be called up
for duty at short notice. A pool of such trained personnel would be
an asset readily available to be deployed to assist in any
In the meantime, Australia should also take a more proactive
attitude towards anthropogenic climate change. There is a crescendo
of voices around the world pushing governments to do more about
climate change. It is an issue which has galvanized opinion in the
Historically, Australia played a leading role in global
discussions in advocating measures to address environmental
degradation, climate change, ozone depletion, hazardous waste,
preservation of the Antarctica, sustainable development, etc.
Australia spoke with a voice that commanded respect. It can
continue to play a lead role and recover its moral authority
without necessarily compromising its economic options.
In Australia, it is also vital to deal quickly with the
seriously negative impact of the bush fires on tourism which has
affected thousands of businesses and jobs. The tourist industry, a
major employment generator, is hurting.
The images of the ferocious fires and the blanketing smoke
beamed in to living rooms around the world cannot be erased
overnight. A multi-media response is immediately required. It is
important to acknowledge what happened honestly and highlight the
proactive and businesslike manner in which the Australian people
The bravery of ordinary volunteer firefighters and civilians,
reflecting the nation’s “can do and we will spirit”, need to
be given prominence in the media. The rapid recovery action taken,
despite the odds, needs underlining.
Depending on the tourist market, people from those markets need
to highlight Australia’s response in the different languages.
Australia has been through much but the opportunity presented to
demonstrate what it can do is significant.
As the lucky country reels under the impact of the fires, smoke,
floods, heat and hail, it still remains the land of dreams for
*Dr Palitha Kohona, a former Permanent Representative of
Sri Lanka to the UN and Chief of the UN Treaty Section, has
previously proposed the creation of a Rapid Response Mechanism
(RRM) by the United Nations to deal with environmental
Coping with Australia’s Surfeit of Natural Disasters &
Lessons to be Learned appeared first on Inter Press Service.
Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Coping with Australia’s Surfeit of Natural Disasters & Lessons to be Learned