by Peter McMahon,
Dr Peter McMahon is a lecturer in Sustainable Development in the School of Sustainability at Murdoch University
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Last year Australia experienced the extremes of weather with killer bushfires in Victoria and destructive floods in Queensland. The Victorian bushfires and Queensland floods reminded us yet again that nature at her worst is far beyond the efforts of humankind to control. The answer lies in prevention where possible and adequate emergency resources in case of disaster. As global warming generates ever more frequent events of ever greater severity, we need to face up to the threat and begin serious preparation to minimise the costs.

Despite the destruction in the east, in reality the state facing the worst climate future is WA. It is a vast, extremely dry state with its population concentrated into the south west corner and its economic centre increasingly in the north west coastal region.

The first problem is the fragility of the environment. WA relies on a small region in the south west for growing fruit and vegetables and running dairy cattle, a large swathe of land east of Perth for wheat and sheep farming, and regions in the north west for growing fruit and some crops and for running cattle.

Already rainfall in the south west has contracted dramatically with a decline of up to 20 percent over the last few decades. Aside from impacting on food sources, this decreasing rainfall must sooner or later have an effect on the huge Karri and Jarrah forests. They have only burned rarely in the past, but they can burn under certain circumstances and such hardwood fires could be truly catastrophic. At the very least an important tourist attraction would be damaged for decades.

The wheat belt is similarly facing problems as rainfall declines or shifts in its pattern. The region already is weakened by salinity and farmers are facing increasingly uncertain returns as a result of increasingly volatile and generally rising energy costs. Already in serious debt, for many these burdens have become too great and they have had to abandon decades of effort and sell up.

Perth also faces critical water shortages with dam inflow the lowest ever in 2010. Expensive, energy-intensive desalination looks to be the likely response, but Perthites are at last facing up to the conclusion that they must lose their English country gardens and vast lawns and go native.

The north west of the state faces the opposite problem; there the issue is too much water, and in the wrong form. Enormous amounts of monsoonal rain are dumped in the north feeding rivers like the mighty Ord. This rain often comes in the form of tropical cyclones, and while the north is used to these, more and worse ones will cause much trouble. In particular the growing infrastructure related to mining, oil and gas exploration and extraction are highly vulnerable to such storms.

Tropical cyclones are a major feature of WA weather as around 10 percent of all cyclones develop off the north west coast with usually two or three making landfall each year. Although early warning and other measures have limited deaths, in the past there have been real killers. In 1887, 140 people were killed and another 150 died in 1912. More recently five people were killed in 1978 when Alby skipped down the coast to cause destruction as far south as Dunsborough.

Water also is a problem for the state in another way. Most of the population of WA resides on the coast; indeed, there is only one sizeable town not on the coast. All these towns are threatened by sea-level rises and increased storms. The Swan River that makes Perth so beautiful is a tidal river, and so any sea-level rise will travel up the river. If this is added to by swells from storms, Perth might experience the worst flooding for decades, seriously impacting on essential road and rail systems. Needless to say, Perth’s most expensive real estate also lies along the coast and on the river banks.

Perth and its environs also are vulnerable to bushfires. There have been some serious fires in the past (in 1961 the town of Dwellingup was cut off for days by a huge fire that destroyed the town and left 800 people homeless) but few lost lives. The outer areas north and south of the city, and particularly the hills east of it, are fire prone, and as the Canberra fires showed, under the worst conditions these fires can penetrate into the suburbs.

More recently the area around Toodyay north-east of Perth burned. Over 30 houses were lost but no lives, perhaps thanks to new regulations brought in after the Victorian bushfires inquiry. The Fire and Emergency Services Authority reported that fires in WA were up 25 percent on 2008, seriously stretching their resources.

So the potential for genuine disaster in WA, and even Perth, is becoming substantial, and this brings us to the issue of isolation. WA effectively is the most isolated developed community in the world – only kept in touch with the rest the world by a sophisticated telecommunications and air transport system. If these systems should fail, and this is entirely possible given a big enough storm, the city would be out of touch for days.

Indeed, even its road and rail systems are hardly robust. There is only one sealed road and one railway track out of Perth to the east. Either or even both could be cut off for days or weeks by flood or fire.

Unfortunately, despite this highly vulnerable situation preparations to deal with likely threats are inadequate. In his latest report WA Auditor General Colin Murphy found that the State Emergency Management Committee had not assessed how well the state could handle large scale emergencies. Indeed, the state may be preparing for the wrong kind of emergencies. Murphy found that ten of the state’s 24 emergency management plans were overdue and there was no state agency delegated to manage bushfire emergencies.

The stark reality is that WA (especially the populated south east corner, the coast and the capital city) is highly vulnerable to extreme weather and local emergency resources are not well placed to respond effectively. Furthermore, if any disaster did strike, because of WA’s isolation and large size, help is a very long way away.

Citation: Peter McMahon, WA: The Vulnerable State. Australian Policy and History. October 2010.


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