News from the CRC

Dean Yibarbuk, ARPNet Co-Chair and team leader for the Gunbalanya research, recording a completed matrix activity on perceptions of natural hazard risk over time.

Dean Yibarbuk, ARPNet Co-Chair and team leader for the Gunbalanya research, recording a completed matrix activity on perceptions of natural hazard risk over time.
Dean Yibarbuk, ARPNet Co-Chair and team leader for the Gunbalanya research, recording a completed matrix activity on perceptions of natural hazard risk over time.
Release date
07 Dec 2015
More information:
Dr Bevelyne Sithole

Managed by us mob

This article first appeard in the Spring 2015 edition of Fire Australia magazine. By Nathan Maddock.

Deep in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, perched on a small hill above the banks of the often-flooded Roper River, lies the community of Ngukurr. When the rains come each wet season, the community is cut off by road—the crossing over the mighty river becomes impassable.  

Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC researchers from the Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University and the University of New England visited the Ngukurr community in June for a workshop with local representatives, camping beside the lily-covered Yarriowarda billabong (Yellow Water in English).

“Yarriowarda is the place of kangaroo dreaming,” explained Cherry Daniels, a senior Elder of Ngukurr. “The white gums resemble the kangaroos. It is a special place.”

Four CRC projects were represented at the workshop, which was joined by local community members and researchers from the Aboriginal Researcher Practitioners’ Network (ARPNet) who are conducting the research on the ground for the CRC. ARPNet is a network of Indigenous research practitioners in northern Australia who are trained in participatory and other research and evaluation tools, primarily in the field of natural resource management and livelihoods. Community-based Aboriginal researchers make it possible for research to be conducted in the first language of the participants, using locally adapted participatory tools, with due attention given to local cultural sensitivities.

ARPNet Director for Research and Training and CRC researcher Dr Bevlyne Sithole said this is not the only advantage.

“They [local community members] do not feel like they are being researched. It feels like they are having a conversation with someone they trust.”

Sitting beside the billabong, hot clear days and cool nights under a full moon were spent delving into what works and what does not work in remote community disaster management. Gorgeous lotus flowers and flourishing birdlife provided the entertainment, as did the approach of a king brown snake towards the workshop’s small marquee. Local knowledge kicked in and a small burn in the long grass drove the snake away.

Along with Ngukurr, the CRC’s Scoping Remote North Australian Community Resilience project has also undertaken on-the-ground research in Gunbalanya (also known as Oenpelli), another Arnhem Land community. Further north and closer to the coast, Gunbalanya is also situated along a river basin and is regularly affected by cyclones and flooding.

The CRC research will benefit the communities living in the challenging environment along the coast of northern Australia, explained Dr Sithole.

“These remote Indigenous communities face many natural hazards on a regular basis. They feel like they are often unprotected and unprepared for these disasters because of their socioeconomic situation. They worry a lot about their survival and their wellbeing,” said Dr Sithole.

“It is really crucial that we engage with communities and talk to them about what is happening on country, so that we can find out how to bring the resilience back to the communities, understand what needs strengthening and what we should prioritise.

“At the moment communities feel very vulnerable. There is a worry that the young people are not fully aware of the risks from natural hazards.

“In the old days, the old people in the community knew how to react to natural hazards, they knew which places to go to and ways to read the weather and nature. They could tell way before something happened that it was going to occur, and there were some people who knew how to control weather or natural events,” said Dr Sithole.

This awareness and knowledge is much reduced; in some places it is being lost as time goes on.

Kingswood Dirdi, ARPNet member, surveying Otto Dann, Gunbalanya resident, about perceptions of natural hazard risk.
Kingswood Dirdi, ARPNet member, surveying Otto Dann, Gunbalanya resident, about perceptions of natural hazard risk.

Before the workshop, 22 ARPNet researchers spent several weeks in both Gunbalanya and Ngukurr, talking with community members and completing 188 interviews. The benefits of the researchers from the CRC attending the Ngukurr workshop are crucial, said Dr Sithole.

“The best thing about meeting on country is that it is easier to relate to the information when you can see where it is coming from, when you can really see the landscape and the challenges faced.

You can hear firsthand the community researcher’s feedback and analysis of the situation,” she said.

“These communities can be isolated for four or five months a year during the wet season. Being on country, we can go and see the high-water mark. It makes it more real. It is clear what is affected and the range of challenges presented.”

It is not just these immediate environmental barriers that come into focus quickly. Feeding the family is also a challenge that rises with natural disasters: from the rising cost of food, to reduced opportunity for hunting and collecting, and also, in some instances, an increased burden to feed multiple families.

“We can go to the local shop and see the prices. Then we hear from the community that these already high costs go up substantially when there is a natural disaster.”

What has been discovered?

The disaster preparedness of the Ngukurr and Gunbalanya communities is often linked with the seasons. Water levels in the rivers and billabongs fluctuate greatly between the wet and the dry. During the dry, fire brings lots of smoke to both communities. Their locations relative to hills and rock outcrops can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.

Stories about vulnerability and safety are connected to people’s views about housing quality and infrastructure. Most of all, stories about vulnerability were related to an absence of people on country, and a weak connection to culture, traditional ceremonies and their traditional structures. A strong advocacy was expressed for bringing old ways back and putting people back on country to strengthen that connection to country and also the coping capabilities within families 

Traditional ceremonies are a large part of how Aboriginal communities cope with and manage natural hazards, and in today’s world these ceremonies do not occur as frequently as they used to.

Ceremonies require the commitment of many – the modern jobs that many hold often mean that the availability of the required senior people to stage a ceremony is just not there. Ceremonies take time, and leave from modern jobs does not allow this time. Ceremonies need to be recognised formally as a crucial part of managing country.

“We found that the communities are already weakened by other factors [other than emergencies]. Natural disasters just make this weakness worse,” explained Dr Sithole.

“When we interviewed the local communities, we were talking about big disasters and we found it became irrelevant—the size (of the disaster) did not matter. Any disaster leaves an impact on anyone who is already vulnerable. Any small bushfire, any small flood—that really affects a community in a fundamental way. It becomes seriously exacerbated in a big disaster,” Dr Sithole noted.

Connectedness to country is fundamental in remote communities. Their way of life depends on this relationship and as communities become increasingly connected to the outside world, this vital bond has been weakened.

“People feel safe to a certain extent in remote areas because it is their landscape. But that is not to say they are not aware of the harshness of their environment. It is accepted that the landscape is harsh and that there will be some challenges. At the moment they feel that there is not enough information available to them, from either their traditional ways or the modern ways, to allow them to be better prepared.

“Often I will hear comments like, ‘We heard that the climate is changing. Maybe for us Aboriginal people it is changing too fast. Maybe it will be very hard for us to change so quickly’,” said Dr Sithole. 

The notion of a safe place understandably differs to that which modern society holds. For a cyclone, a safe place in these remote communities does not always refer to a cyclone shelter, as not all communities have such a shelter. It can refer to a brick house belonging to a relative. Improved housing remains a key issue in Ngukurr and Gunbalanya, especially the provision of cyclone-coded housing and shelters. A key point that Dr Sithole noted was that design of shelters must recognise cultural norms and practices that might affect how these facilities are used.

Sheltering from a natural hazard in an Aboriginal community is not as simple as having one shelter that everyone can access. As part of their culture, different family members are required to avoid others in their family because of avoidance relationships.

“People need to meet their cultural obligations, but be safe too,” Dr Sithole said.

Community-wide emergency plans are another issue for remote communities. Less than a third of the surveyed population in Gunbalanya, and just over a half in Ngukurr, knew that there was an emergency plan. Many of these people had not seen the plan, which is held at the local police station.

Dr Sithole noted that to understand this issue, one must appreciate the extent of Aboriginal incarceration in the Territory, and the relationships that communities have with the police.

“There is a reluctance among most people to go visiting the police station and openly ask questions about emergency management,” she said.

Workshop participants by the Yarriowarda billabong at Ngukurr.
Workshop participants by the Yarriowarda billabong at Ngukurr.

The research has found that all facets of emergency management can be improved, not just preparation and response. Recovery after a natural disaster is a key factor too, with many within communities possessing skills that can be called on in an emergency situation, but are not used.

“Jobs like operating machinery and chainsawing are required in the clean up, but local people can feel excluded from the response and not employed to undertake these tasks. People from Darwin often come in and are given these responsibilities, while locals are given menial tasks.

“The Ngukurr and Gunbalanya communities are recommending a skills register of local people so the government is aware of the local response capability. These people can be called on within their community, or another community nearby, to assist in emergency response. They also want government to consider identifying individuals in the community as part of a disaster response team whose skills are developed over time and can operate in communities to help in times of disasters.”

At the end of the day, emergency preparedness, response and recovery in remote communities across northern Australia is not much different from in other locations around the country. It is about people, and Dr Sithole said this people-focused message comes through loud and clear in the research findings.

“For any planning or talking about emergencies, Aboriginal people should be central. They want to be part of it and know what is going on. From just knowing what resources are available, who is doing what, to knowing what houses are coded to different cyclone categories, to being involved and doing their part,” said Dr Sithole.

ARPNet Co-Chair and team leader for Gunbalanya, Dean Yibarbuk, agrees that people are paramount.

“Government needs to see us as capable people who can be involved in planning and responding to disasters,” he said.

“The big message from this project for us mob is to find a way to get government to recognise that ceremony is important and that it is a big part of how we as a people understand and manage disasters.

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Issue Three of Fire Australia for 2017 features new prediction software for predictions of bushfire spread, how NSW's geography curriculum allows students to become agents of change for community resilience, suggestions for reducing the risks involved in prescribed burning, research on the impacts of severe wind during Cyclone Debbie, and new natural hazards science at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.
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