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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 12

(Question No. 1334)

Senator Archer asked the Minister representing the Minister for Science, upon notice, on 22 August 1986:

(1) What specific steps are being taken to strengthen the Bureau of Meteorology's ``severe weather warning system''.

(2) What methodology is used to establish how levels of increased funding could reduce damage caused by-

(a) cyclones;

(b) bushfires;

(c) floods; and

(d) severe storms.

(3) What is the estimated reduction in damage caused by each of the above as a result of the expenditure outlay in the 1986-87 Budget, using this methodology.

Senator Button —The Minister for Science has provided the following answer to the honourable senator's question:

(1) Two specific major initiatives are underway to improve the Bureau's warning services:

(a) a program of progressive re-equipment of the basic national meteorological observation, communications and data processing systems which provide the common foundation on which all the Bureau's services, including the severe weather and flood warning services, are built. Following more than a decade during which the Bureau's annual capital expenditure was held at around the $1m level, the re-equipment program is now proceeding vigorously on the basis of a capital allocation of $5.4m in the current year. Some particular initiatives in the general re-equipment program that can be expected to contribute significantly to improvement of the warning services (with 1986-87 capital funding in brackets) include:

replacement of the obsolete weather watch radar at Cairns ($385,000)

replacement of remote island automatic weather stations off the tropical coast ($230,000)

installation of two stations (Perth and Melbourne) of an eventual three-station national network for reception and processing of high resolution meteorological satellite data ($400,000)

installation of automated facilities for data processing and forecast and warning dissemination in Darwin and Perth ($1,270,000) and extension of existing facilities at Brisbane and Sydney ($120,000)

(b) a program of specific upgrading and modernisation of the four major warning services involving provision of specialist warning staff and specialised warning facilities. A sum of $300,000 has been allocated for this purpose in 1986-87 for a number of specific initiatives including:

meteorological instrumentation of fishing vessels in the Gulf of Carpentaria to assist with tropical cyclone tracking ($10,000)

installation of lighting detection systems to improve the fire weather warning service in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales ($30,000)

provision of facilities for relay of weather watch radar data from a number of tropical coastal radars to the Tropical Cyclone Warning Centres ($107,000)

provision of an automated data collection system to improve flood warning on the Derwent River ($10,000)

initiation of pilot flash flood warning systems for the Adelaide foothills ($50,000) and high priority areas in Queensland and New South Wales

provision of microcomputers for flood warning system development in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia.

(2) The development and operation of an efficient, effective warning system involves consideration of a wide range of factors such as:

the temporal and spatial frequency of occurrence of phenomenon for which the warning service is required

the population density and the vulnerability of the communities and facilities involved

the potential for damage reduction in terms of warning lead times, prediction accuracy and so on

the capacity of various systems and technologies for predicting and or locating the phenomenon involved

the role of the various levels of Government and other organisations in communicating the warning information and initiating counter disaster preparedness measures, and many others.

Extensive research has been undertaken in Australia and overseas into the design of effective warning systems but there is no simple universal methodology available. Decisions on how particular levels of funding can be used most effectively are based heavily on professional judgement of the relative importance of various factors such as those listed above. Each improvement in the warning system increases the reliability of the warning service and reduces the risk of system failure. Quite apart from considerations of the prevention of loss of life, benefit/cost studies in Australia and overseas suggest that over a period of years:

at least 10-20%, and in some areas as much as 50%, of fire, cyclone, severe storm and flood damage is avoidable given an effective warning system

with total annual damage of the order of $500m (as much as $2,000m in a bad year) and the present relatively unsophisticated warning system, further reduction in damage to the extent of at least $50m per annum should be possible with an upgraded system

given that the additional resource requirement to provide a modern warning service of a level of sophistication similar to that of comparable overseas countries is of the order of $2.5m per annum, benefit cost ratios of at least 20 to 1 can be expected.

(3) It is not possible to associate a specific damage reduction figure with the particular items of expenditure in 1986-87. It could be that the benefit from an improved warning resulting from just one item of 1986-87 expenditure will more than repay the complete five-year cost of the upgrading program within the first year. Alternatively it could be some years before the full benefits are felt. Averaging over a period of years and applying a single simple but conservative benefit cost ratio of 10 to 1 would suggest annual savings of the order of $1.2m for 1986-87 investment in the cyclone warning system, $0.3m for the fire warning system and $1.5m for the flood warning system.