Around Australia, coastal communities are planning how they will adapt to climate change and manage their
coast sustainably. But coming up with a community supported implementation plan is proving difficult for many.
Progress has often been impeded by the lack of a comprehensive state policy framework to provide the local
communities with sufficient certainty or guidance to plan. Experience with communities, and discussion with
state government and researchers, suggests two decisionmaking processes, or coastal adaption ‘pathways',
which might achieve better results.
The Community Adaption Pathway lays out critical decisionmaking steps for coastal communities. Interacting
with this would be a Statewide Adaption Policy Framework Pathway, through which state government could
establish policy frameworks that support effective community planning. The remainder of this article expands
on each step of the Community Pathway, while the next issue of Urbecon will discuss the Statewide Adaption
Policy framework Pathway.
The 15 steps in the Community Pathway proposed here are relatively idealised. Some steps may not be fully
achieved, others' significance will vary with context. Their order might change and they will need to be rethought
with experience. However they at least broadly define the ground that has to be covered. They should be
undertaken in an open, consultative manner, with extensive community engagement.
1. Establish hazards and future sea level rise effects and map them at the local/relevant scale.
Hazards to be assessed may include inundation, erosion, combined coastal and riverine flood events and,
where relevant, river entrance stability and high water tables. This should include assessment of present day
risk (current sea level) - often poorly documented. However, detailed assessment is probably warranted, in
the short run, only for locations showing significant present day risk. Hazard lines should be publicly available,
with supporting information about interpretation, use and any limitations they might have. Publishing maps
helps asset owners begin to assess their situation and to plan for future investment.
2. Interim planning scheme amendment in hazard areas. Hazard mapping will both improve understanding of
present day risk and show the potential for longer term risk from climate change. In many cases this new
evidence will be sufficient to warrant an amendment to existing schemes to control development in the
affected areas. An interim scheme could use fairly conventional planning instruments but take a conservative
approach providing improved decision making until a more comprehensive, longer term and more strategic
plan is ready. A model interim planning scheme with controls for areas with a coastal hazard from climate
change, but where full scenario planning has not yet been completed, would be useful.
3. Assess assets at risk. Over the near term, the main aim is identifying areas where sufficient assets are
at enough risk to need short term protection works, under a ‘transition support plan'. In the longer term,
such works would be planned and funded by the beneficiaries. The experience of developing and implementing
short term works will help inform the scale and timing of longer term adaptation. Only a relatively quick and
low cost level of assessment of assets at risk (private, public, infrastructure, natural) is needed.
4. Establish the expected cost of risk. Ideally, lifetime risk to assets would be evaluated as net present
value, on a probabilistic basis, assuming ‘business as usual' practices and climate change. The span of
possible outcomes can be shown using a Monte Carlo or similar assessment tool. This sort of analysis will
reveal the significance of asset lifetime, suggesting new options for those making choices. It would also show
up the relative importance of loss of improvements, consequential losses and loss of the right to occupy a
location. Non-dollar costs (such as injury and loss of life) should also be included.
5. Assess the value of occupation or use. A first approximation would be based on the land value in hazard
areas, with any premium or deficit compared to nonhazardous areas indicating the scale of any benefit. A
strong focus on value and the benefits of occupying/investing/living in hazard zones will underscore that
occupants of these areas generally gain benefits - and therefore can reasonably be expected to meet any
‘extra' costs involved in their being there. Community consultation has shown that many residents already
recognise the substantial coastal benefits. Where there are shown to be few benefits, (for example, on low
lying land well in from the coast), there is not likely to be much resistance to retreat , but transition
assistance would be needed if required if accommodation to the hazard is not practical.
6. First cut assessment of adaptation options and costs. The full range of possible responses would be
identified and costed in broad terms including options for protection, accommodation and retreat. This
preliminary assessment provides an estimate of the scale of costs for different options as a background to
thinking about future scenarios. The list should be relatively comprehensive and include some of the ‘wilder'
options, and encourage community contributions and creativity. Misleading cost estimates (high or low)
that bias preferences excessively should be avoided.
7. Plan and implement necessary short term protection works in hazard areas. Short term protection
works are likely to be required in many areas that attract third pass detailed assessment. Where assets are
found to have significant present day risks, it may be appropriate to consider short term protection works to
reduce immediate risk. Experience shows that locals generally know the areas with present day threats and
these are often motivating factors for entering into the process. Short term works should be done properly,
not hastily, with investigation of cost effectiveness and environmental and other impacts.
Short term protection works aim to reduce anxiety from being more aware of significant present day risk. They
should not be ‘hard' infrastructure with a long expected life but rather, beach/dune nourishment, sand bag
based groynes or other forms of protection that have a short life or can be readily dismantled, and are unlikely
to permanently affect the coastal dynamics. Meant to buy time, they should not preclude other possible future
options. Providing them is part of a transition strategy that leads the community to making longer term choices
it supports and is prepared to substantially, if not entirely, fund.
Clarity around short term works is essential. Councils are not obliged to protect private property from coastal
hazards. The works should clearly be identified as short term (say up to 15 years). Councils should clearly
indicate that they do not intend to maintain the works in the long term, and should seek backing by the State
in taking this position. Councils should fund (or seek funding assistance) for short term works as part of a
transition strategy, but make clear that they are unlikely to be able to continue the funding in the long term.
Short term works are designed to reduce risk from the current level - not to eliminate risk, nor even to maintain
current levels of risk with an increasing sea level. They are a stepping stone to a longer term strategy. The
community should be consulted on the works' design and conduct, particularly if they will cause significant
8. Establish preliminary policy and decision making framework. Lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities
is often cited as an obstacle to making further progress. A comprehensive framework would consider national,
state, regional, LGA and community (private) responsibilities. But while a comprehensive framework would
make it much easier to complete subsequent steps in the coastal hazard planning process, it is a large and
confronting task. It is probably more realistic to target parts of the framework at one time. It may also be more
productive to address the framework indirectly, examining different scenarios and then debating among
stakeholders what framework is most likely to achieve the preferred outcomes.
9. Strategic options assessment (Scenario Planning). This would lay out possible futures and explore their
implications - to explore the results of different choices, not to make predictions. It encourages the community
to make choices that provide or protect value and to understand the costs (in terms of investment in adaptation
or bearing the damages from acceptable levels of risk), comparing the outcomes of different approaches in each
scenario. As well as ‘technical' or built adaptation options, the scenarios would include consideration of some
policy, governance and financing variants, either as an indirect way of addressing step 8 above or to further
explore options developed in that step.
Firstly, all identifiable adaption options should be listed, including protection, accommodation, avoidance and
retreat, and also ‘soft' risk reduction measures such as information, education, and evacuation planning. For
each option, analysis should specify; what risk it addresses, to what hazard level and how, general impacts
and outcomes if adopted, modes of failure in an extreme event exceeding design specification or with long term
continued sea level rise, what options may be complementary (either favourable or essential) or incompatible,
cost, and the extent to which it is individual asset-based or collective action-based.
Scenarios group the options listed into sets that are reinforcing and overall, provide acceptable levels of risk
over both the short and long term. An initial selection of plausible scenarios would be proposed, and would
be explored in a series of workshops, with councillors, council staff, state government agencies, the local
affected community and the wider community in the local government area. The workshops may vary or refine
these scenarios, and should explore the scenarios' credibility, desirablility, the ability to implement, cost
effectiveness, flexibility, and modes of failure. Two or three preferred scenarios would be selected for further
assessment, with the rationale for selection documented. For the short listed scenarios there are likely to
be a few key questions that may need further investigation in the next step.
10. Detailed assessment of short listed options. More detailed assessment of the short list of adaptation
options that are consistent with favoured scenarios would be required to ensure the preferred scenarios are
realistic and well grounded. This would include technical/engineering assessment of works, environmental
impacts, and possibly, more detailed assessment of legal and governance issues identified. It should also
include assessing the situation if value plummets (or adaptation costs soar) and retreat becomes the only
viable option, and how that would unfold.
11. Select preferred scenario. The detailed assessment will provide a sharper picture of the scenarios to
allow stakeholders to reassess the short list and choose a preferred scenario or variant as the basis for an
12. Establish financial framework. This would include consideration of long term financial responsibilities
for adaptation costs as well as transition arrangements and assistance to those inequitably disadvantaged
by regulatory change. The financial framework could be determined at step 8, or kept separate, or be
determined as part of the scenario explorations in step 9. When the scenarios and costs are clear, earlier
policy thinking about governance and finance should be revisited to confirm the preferred approach - before
embedding the thinking in statutory documents that commit the community to a framework that will guide
13. Revised ‘final' planning scheme. Up to this point it has been assumed that an interim planning scheme
has been in force. Now a final plan can be implemented taking into account the decision and changes
described above. It is likely to differ in some respects from conventional planning scheme documents: it
may contain provisions for conditional occupancy of sites, obligations for future response by asset owners
to developing risk, obligations for future contributions to infrastructure upgrades or community protection
14. Implementation. Long term works and other plans could now be progressed consistent with the preferred
approach. This would include detailed costing, planning and budgeting and funding of any works or
infrastructure upgrades. Not all of this would need to happen immediately, with some works only required
in the future in response to increasing risk, when sea levels rise or other changes occur.
15. Review. The preferred approach should be reviewed periodically as required. The Community Adaption
Pathway and the related Statewide Adaption Policy Framework Pathway are proposed as a way of moving
to sustainable coastal management and adaptation to climate change. Both need to occur, in some form
or another, to enable a change from current unsustainable practices with uncertain outcomes to a future
where coastal investors and occupants are clear about their responsibilities if they seek to gain the benefits
the coast brings.
DECCW (2010) Flood Risk Management Guide: incorporating sea level rise benchmarks in flood risk assessments, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water NSW Sydney
NSW Government (1990), Coastline Management Manual, Sydney, Australia
NSW Government (2005), Floodplain Development Manual: the management of flood liable land, April, Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources, ISBN 0 7347 5476 0, DIPNR 05_020
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