Views and Visions: Posts from our People

Project Leader and PhD Student
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Yellow Water lilies
Yellow Water lilies

Preparing and responding - same large or small?

Can the way a community responds to a small natural hazard be a guide to the way it will respond to a more major event? This wasn’t actually one of the questions dealt with by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC workshop held at the indigenious community of Ngukurr in the Northern Territory recently, but the effort to save the workshop venue from blowing away might be instructive.

Let me explain. Thirty Bushfire and Natural Hazard CRC researchers and Aboriginal community members met for four days on the bank of the gorgeous Yellow Water (actually “Yarriowarda” but called ‘Yellow Water’ because the missionaries couldn’t pronounce the local language) billabong in Arnhem Land to discuss remote north Australian community resilience. Cool nights and warm clear days were spent delving into what works and doesn’t work in remote community disaster management, with participant’s gaze often drifting to the lotus flowers and birdlife along the billabong. At one point a huge flock of corellas caused a halt in proceedings because no one could be heard above their partying. 

Aboriginal researchers and community members from Gunbalanya and Ngukurr (the hosts of the event) presented data and discussed the unique perspectives of remote Australian indigenous communities and the issues affecting bushfire and natural hazard preparation and management. One clear message from the research conducted by the Aboriginal Research Practitioners’ Network (ARPNet - see the end of my post for more on ARPNet) strongly reflects Paton et al. (2001) comment “community responsiveness to natural hazard issues will be sensitive to the salience of other societal events. For example, an increase in the salience of social ‘hazards’ such as crime, economic adversity, or unemployment, could lessen the perceived importance of natural hazard issues”. There was strong evidence that these everyday ‘disasters’ occupied much of people’s capacity and one community member commented that “government is the biggest disaster of all”. The effects of this negative social pressure appears to be far reaching; in Gunbalanya only 12% of people interviewed said they felt ‘safe’. This work is currently being written up and will be available through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC in the future.

There was a lot of talk about the recent cyclones, ‘Nathan’ and ‘Lam’ and their impacts, with particular emphasis placed on the intrusion of ‘Balander’ (white people – from “Hollander”) emergency workers brought in to places like Ramingining while many in the community who had skills and certificates were initially made to feel isolated from the recovery process. These issues seem to reflect the trust relationships between the community and agencies and there was a lot of discussion about the fact that such emergency management arrangements as exist are situated at the police station. Not a place most in communities look on with a great deal of enthusiasm.

Sitting under the portable marquees we were reminded that preparation for disaster should be undertaken during periods of quiescence. The hottest part of the day was generally relieved by a pleasant breeze, but this changed to strong intermittent gusts that lifted the tents and threatened to carry the whole thing off in a twist of poles and canvas. There was no panic, but efforts were made to pin the marquees down with pegs and guys to make it stable. This proved effective in stopping all but the noise of the wind pulling at the roof.

It wasn’t lost on most of the participants that their behaviour was like so much that is reported in the research literature about natural hazard preparation behaviour. In this case inadequate preparation (including by the author) led to an urgent impromptu response, when the whole threat of disaster could have been avoided if better preparation had taken place at the beginning. Turns out the researchers exhibit some of the same behaviours as the communities they study.

ARPNet is a coordinated team of Aboriginal people who have been trained in Participatory Action Research. Members of the network are contracted to conduct research, evaluation and planning activities using qualitative and quantitative research methods. For each project, ARPNet members work with the Lead Researcher to clarify the research objective and frame the approach. ARPNet research is then conducted in the first language of the participants with due attention to local cultural sensitivities. This approach has consistently led to research findings of a high explanatory calibre. Consistent improvements in understanding of things like project failure in remote communities, when compared to previous ‘traditional’ research approaches have been observed in ARPNet research projects.

Paton, D., et al. (2001). "Direct and vicarious experience of volcanic hazards: implications for risk perception and adjustment adoption." Australian Journal of Emergency Management 15: 55-63.

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