A look at the highlights from “A Smart Sustainable Future for All 2018″ Symposium

By Pravin Silva

Lights of modern asian city. Palm tree against Singapore skyline at dusk.

Increased extreme weather events and the challenges brought upon us by climate change will necessitate a new approach to how we think about disaster management. Devastating fires in Greece and the recent landslide in Sulawesi demonstrate some of the many challenges we face in dealing with extreme weather events and natural disasters.

In response to the devastation wreaked by environmental disasters, it’s easy to overlook the importance of continuing to use sustainable practices in our responses – a possibility which provided background for the creation of the Blueprint for Disaster Management Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

It may sound like a mouthful, but this blueprint highlights the importance of thinking about sustainability and development together and the ongoing need to embed these goals into the way we tackle crises. Our responses to disaster when it strikes can help lay the ground work for preventing further catastrophe through creating better prepared and more resilient communities.

Wildfire in the Bayou in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana

The Blueprint was officially launched on between 24 and 26 of September 2018, with the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Spatial Data Infrastructure and Land Administration (CSDILA) and Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety (CDMPS), in partnership with The World Bank, hosting “A Smart Sustainable Future for All” 2018 Symposium. The Symposium brought together the academic and research community and key stakeholders from industry and government at Melbourne School of Design to discuss themes of sustainable development, disaster resilience, geospatial technologies and global policy frameworks .

The Symposium included speakers from all around the world, with Anna Wellenstein, Director of Strategy and Operations in Global Practice of Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience at The World Bank Group, delivering the opening keynote speech on World Bank Vision and Improving Resilience. Wellenstein highlighted a number of key challenges ahead for the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). In one example she explained that while land tenure security is vital for ending poverty, eliminating hunger, achieving gender equality and sharing prosperity, only 30% of the world’s population currently has legal rights to their land. Further, those who do enjoy legal rights to their land are disproportionately male, with the elimination of this gender gap by 2030 one of the sustainable development goals.

Wellenstein highlighted the prediction that global food production needs to grow 60% from 2005 to 2050 to support the world’s population growth and that this growth will be concentrated in urban areas, noting that the world will have added 2 billion urban residents and 1.2 million km2 of new urban area between 1970 and 2030, arguing that “in the context of rapid urbanization, population displacement, food insecurity and natural disasters, land administration and geospatial systems have become paramount to a smart sustainable future”. Yet despite the importance of these systems, they are often incomplete and out of date in many developing and high disaster risk countries, limiting their capability for disaster response, prevention and mitigation.

In the context of rapid urbanization, population displacement, food insecurity and natural disasters, land administration and geospatial systems have become paramount to a smart sustainable future

Mark Crosweller, Head of Australia’s National Resilience Taskforce and Director General of Emergency Management Australia, delivered a keynote titled Resilience and Vulnerability: Two Sides of the Same Coin. Crosweller warned that the challenges posed by extreme weather events in Australia were now stretching Australia’s ability to manage them. At the same time, he noted that Australia’s population is forecast to exceed 40 million people by 2050, requiring Australia to build an additional 60% of infrastructure nationwide to support an additional population equivalent to the size of Canberra each year.

Crosweller raised several important questions for attendees to ponder. How do we define vulnerability and incorporate it into risk management assessments and how to sensibly balance efforts between risk reduction and resilience? How do we establish meaningful vertical integration for communities to access government and participate in decision making before, during and after an event? Emphasising that encouraging and supporting social capital is essential for horizontal integration, such as knowing one’s neighbours and that these in turn are critical to saving lives during disasters, Crosweller closed his keynote by asking attendees to think about the social contract between disaster responders and those they seek to protect during disasters given responders’ limited deployment resources and vulnerability to harm.

“Staring Down Hurricane Florence” ESA/NASA–A. Gerst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Symposium attendees were presented with case studies of innovations and challenges experienced by wide range of countries, including Nigeria, India, Indonesia and China. A presentation on “Spatially-Enabled Cities of the Future” from Tan Boon Khai, Chief Executive of Singapore Land Authority, was of particular interest with his discussion of Singapore’s “digital twin”. This project, based on geospatial data, aims to build the world’s first “Smart Nation” by harnessing technology in support of disaster resilience to improve the lives of its citizens and build stronger communities. This new “virtual Singapore” can be used to improve measurement and predictions of disasters, which can then be fed into improving disaster management performance.

Professor Lisa Gibbs from Melbourne School of Population and Global Health presented a fascinating talk on Simplicity and Complexity in the Social Dynamics of Disaster Recovery – Informing Future Resilience. Gibbs detailed the effect of disasters on mental health, with the incidence of mental health disorders increasing by as much as 26% in some communities up to three to fours after a disaster.

Professor Gibbs stressed the importance of social ties to disaster recovery, as close personal relationships and involvement in community groups and organisations predicted better mental health and personal wellbeing, including after local disasters. She noted that individuals’ risk of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was associated with having more fractured social networks. At the same time, individuals’ risk of suffering from depression increased for those who were connected to other depressed people.

Professor Gibbs concluded by calling on attendees to consider the role of green spaces in supporting mental health in disaster recovery. Referencing her finding that a strong attachment to the natural environment improves mental health outcomes, resilience and post-traumatic growth, she noted that while this information seemed obvious to rural residents, “as a city girl, I needed to be told!”

In bringing together top experts from around the world, “A Smart Sustainable Future for All” 2018 pointed towards a future of international dialogue and cooperation that will be needed to manage and respond to the effects of climate change and extreme weather events around the world, sharing the findings, ideas and viewpoints of a diverse array of speakers to spread knowledge that would otherwise remain in silos.

Download the Blueprint PDF