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Scenario planning lessons from a disaster management expert

When it comes to natural disasters, the old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ rings true. And with the right scenario planning, this approach can also work for water utilities.

As an environmental engineer and research leader in the Economics and Strategic Decisions Cluster at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), Professor Holger Maier has extensive experience in this area.

“In a medical situation, it’s usually better to stop something from happening than to fix it once it has occurred,” Maier said ahead of his presentation at the Australian Water Association’s SA Symposium this month.

“It’s the same with natural hazards like bushfires and heatwaves. We spend a lot of money fixing problems but we don’t spend on mitigation – we wait until something happens and then mop it up.”

At the CRC, Maier models different disaster scenarios to find the best mix of mitigation strategies, from training and community education to structural approaches like building dams to prevent a flood, or land management activities such as back burning to prevent bushfires.

Importantly, he looks at how the scenarios, and the responses to them, will change over time, taking into account things like population models and climate change in different contexts.

Maier describes this work as a “policy wind tunnel”.

“Often, we put policies out but don’t test them under the conditions they might be exposed to in the future,” he said.

“In the same way you would test a car in a wind tunnel, we think of our system as stress-testing different policies under different scenarios.”

Maier will discuss some of the lessons he’s learnt from his work in disaster management that can also be applied to the water sector at the SA Symposium. 

This includes taking a regional approach to climate change, and understanding that the point at which assets fail now isn’t necessarily the point they will fail at in the future.

“One of the lessons is that it’s vital to plan for multiple plausible futures rather than a single, best-guess future,” he said.

“It’s better to put a fence at the top of a cliff than to park an ambulance at the bottom. 

“But we need to decide where to put the fence, how high to make it, who owns it, and who pays for it.”

Hear more from Holger Maier at the SA Symposium, held on 19 September in Adelaide. To learn more and to register, click here.