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Shifting sands

In a nation that has built most of its prime assets close to the sea, coastal erosion is always going to be a major talking point for Australians.

So it proved at last week’s Risk Frontiers Annual Seminar in Sydney, where a number of presentations addressed the often-controversial issue.

Risk Frontiers is an independent research centre sponsored by the insurance industry. Established in 1994 to aid better understanding and pricing of natural hazard risks in the region, it now also works with government agencies, businesses and utilities on risk-related issues.

Sea level rise and a predicted increase in storm severity as climate change bites can only add to a problem that is already having a significant impact.

Recent images of a swimming pool floundering on what was left of the Collaroy beachfront in Sydney demonstrated this all too well.

Risk Frontiers’ risk scientist Thomas Mortlock examined the east coast low that struck in June and resulted in the worst erosion at Narrabeen-Collaroy since 1974.

Estimated insured losses from the wider event, which covered Queensland, NSW and Tasmania, stand at $421.69 million.

At Collaroy the peak offshore wave height of 6.4 metres was unremarkable, Mr Mortlock says. It was the waves’ east-northeast direction that caused such catastrophic damage.

A global warming-driven expansion of the tropics is likely to create more similar storms in future.

“Storm direction is crucial in assessing coastal risk, and nobody has really looked at it,” he said. “More consideration of wave climate change is needed.”

Karen Coleman, of law firm King & Wood Mallesons, told the conference local councils are not equipped to cope with the complexities of coastal management.

She acted for two groups of Belongil residents that successfully sued Byron Shire Council.

The first group claimed they suffered significant financial loss due to council work to protect the town’s main beach and car park. They argued this caused a realignment of the beach and erosion of their properties. The second group claimed significant financial loss due to the council’s acts or omissions during a 2009 storm.

The cases were resolved earlier this year, leaving the insurer – JLT-administered Statewide Mutual – to cover a $2.75 million payout.

“The courts should not be dealing with this,” Ms Coleman said. “But at the moment we don’t have a system that allows any other way. There are different approaches from different councils, and politics comes into it.”

Ms Coleman says a “far more cohesive” approach is needed.

“It is a hugely important issue for Australia, our economic prosperity depends on it. Our built communities are all along the coast. We need someone looking at it from a holistic point of view to assess which communities we can protect and where we should retreat.”

The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) says it welcomes any research that improves understanding of natural disasters and enhances communities’ ability to protect themselves.

But it has declined to offer any views on the best way to tackle coastal erosion.

“It is the responsibility of governments to protect communities from the impact of known and predicted hazards, including coastal erosion,” GM Communications and Media Relations Campbell Fuller said.

“Though ICA acknowledges that historical planning decisions have permitted developments on land that is highly vulnerable to coastal erosion, it is up to governments to decide on the most appropriate strategies to protect these properties and their occupants.”

It may not be the insurance industry’s problem. But as experience shows, it still gets caught in the crossfire when things go wrong.

And if the climate predictions are right, things will be going wrong with a grim regularity in the decades to come.

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