Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Courting Disaster

The sheer scale of the disaster in Burma is difficult to comprehend. The confirmed death toll from Cyclone Nargis has passed 20 000 and could well reach twice or even three times that many. Efforts to assist the victims will be made all the more difficult by the political environment in Burma, where the prevailing military government has a record of isolationism and disregard for human rights. Nevertheless, aid agencies have already begun their work to help alleviate the suffering.

This tragic event is also a reminder to our own authorities of the risks all of us confront in the event of disaster overtaking Australia. The timing of the disaster also coincides with the release this week of a report indicating Australia’s level of preparedness for large scale calamity is not up to the task.

David Templeman is the former director general of Emergency Management Australia, and in association with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has warned that Australia has serious deficiencies in a number of areas. These include a lack of clear leadership in co-ordinating federal, state, and local authorities, along with very big question marks about whether our hospital system can cope with mass casualties. After all, most of us are complaining that the hospital system is just barely coping under the day to day workload. What on earth would happen in the event of thousands of casualties requiring assistance at one time.

In recent years, the focus has been on counter terrorism, with around $10 billion spent since 2001. While no one is suggesting we should reduce our efforts there, it seems the same attention has not been given to the possibility of natural disaster, or large scale accident. No nation is immune to the risk. Hurricane Katrina proved that in the United States.

To ignore this advice is to continue courting disaster.

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