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‘We need to talk about relocation’

An urgent national conversation about relocating the most at-risk homes is needed to address the growing threat of riverine flooding and rising sea levels, according to a new study.

The academics behind the report – Relocating Australian Communities at Risk: Strategies and Actions in Time – say hundreds of thousands of properties are in harm’s way and will need to be moved.

It’s a difficult “last resort” when adaptation in situ is no longer viable, the report says, and it must always be voluntary.

But relocation will become “more often essential” as the climate continues to change, and we need to start planning now.

Following the record-breaking 2022 floods, NSW and Queensland have offered buyback programs for the worst-affected residents.

But the academics say much more is needed, and call for a nationally co-ordinated, proactive program.

“We can plan ahead, identify areas most at risk and permanently relocate communities before disaster strikes,” they write in The Conversation.

“While the prospect of relocation can be unsettling and traumatic for residents, it offers new opportunities and long-term benefits. But we must act now.”

The report calls for a national relocation strategy to be overseen by a new National Relocation Authority. 

“The Commonwealth is uniquely positioned to co-ordinate and guide state and territory practices concerning relocation. It can ensure efforts are not duplicated, best practices are consistently adopted, and national resources for relocation are used to maximum effect.”

One of the study’s authors, Roslyn Prinsley, the head of disaster solutions at Australian National University, tells recent action in places such as Lismore is welcome, but it’s “just the tip of the iceberg”.

Experts have warned that one in 25 homes could become uninsurable by 2030, and this is just in relation to riverine flooding.

“Then of course there’s sea level rise, which is the next thing to worry about,” Dr Prinsley says. “[The number of homes impacted] will expand over time, but we are talking about hundreds of thousands of properties.”

In a pre-budget submission, the Insurance Council of Australia called for the federal government to invest $250 million a year, matched by states and territories, to enable home buybacks.

The measure was not put in place, and some believe the Commonwealth may be reluctant to pay to rectify perceived mistakes made by local governments – such as allowing building on floodplains.

But Dr Prinsley says this is an oversimplification, and in many cases “nobody is really to blame”.

“Climate change has really changed things. For every degree of warming, the air’s capacity for water vapour goes up by about 7%, but as well as that, the extra heat in the atmosphere means there is more energy for weather systems that generate intense rainfall.

“This increases the risk of these really big flash floods, and I don’t think that was predicted when a lot of these developments were allowed.”

To inform the national strategy, the report also calls for the development of dynamic risk mapping, plus resource, skills and logistics registers.

“Before a disaster, many people would feel, ‘Well, it won’t happen to me,’ and, ‘Why would I move because I’ve just bought this really nice house?’ That’s why we need to have this conversation across the community and we need to have as good an understanding as we can of the risks.”

Dr Prinsley says the strategy has clear implications for insurers, but it’s not yet clear what role they should play.

“People wouldn’t move unless it was pretty desperate, and when it’s pretty desperate they are usually uninsurable. The idea is to move them to somewhere safe where they can get insurance.

“That’s why we think we need this National Relocation Authority. Where are the places that are going to be uninsurable and then where are the places they can move to? How are we going to make that happen, and who’s going to fund it? There is also a question to ask about the role of insurers in this process.

“These are massive questions, but we need to start asking them now or we are going to end up with a huge mess down the track.”

The Insurance Council of Australia declined to comment on the study, but major insurers Suncorp and IAG have previously released their own reports on relocation.

For more in-depth analysis, features and opinion, read the latest Insurance News magazine