The Torres Cape Indigenous Council Alliance (TCICA) hosted its second Indigenous Local Government Disaster Resilience Forum in Cairns yesterday, with TCICA Deputy Chair and Mayor of Kowanyama Aboriginal Shire Council Robbie Sands officially opening the event.
Facilitated by Professor Allan Dale and featuring a top quality line up of presenters, the forum was attended by nearly 80 Mayors, Councillors, Chief Executives, council staff, and representatives of key government agencies, critical service providers, and non-government organisations from across the North Queensland region.
Action to date
Participants were updated on the progress of 10 priorities and actions identified during TCICA’s inaugural forum in 2019, which included building the resilience of critical public infrastructure, addressing food security issues, better regional flood monitoring and early warning systems, long-term regional resilience planning, and improved information sharing and reporting. A copy of the 2019 post forum report can be found here.
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, local governments across the region have progressed a range of infrastructure improvements like airstrip reseals, barge ramp enhancements, and the sealing of community access roads. Work is also underway to address electricity network matters and telecommunications and connectivity issues. The recently-completed JCU/QUT digital connectivity study commissioned by TCICA provides a community-by-community baseline of connectivity issues across the region to support strategic investment planning. TCICA also commissioned Arup Australia to investigate and report on food production hub opportunities in Cape York and the Torres Strait to help plan for food security and regional resilience building. Both of these studies were funded by the Queensland Government under the Remote Area Board program.
A total of 19 new flood cameras, river high monitors and rain gauges will be installed across the Cape and Torres region, with work expected to be completed by mid-2022. These will be connected directly to Bureau of Meteorology monitoring systems, with the data and camera images publicly available.
Forum participants heard from three councils on steps taken to build more resilient townships. Mapoon Aboriginal Shire Council’s Works Manager Tom Smith presented on the council’s solar lighting and CCTV project to provide more cost effective lighting of public spaces and increase community safety. Napranum Aboriginal Shire Council’s Chief Executive Janelle Menzies spoke about their fixed wireless network project to improve broadband services, and Weipa Town Authority’s Deputy Chair Stretch Noonan spoke on the importance of a strong and functional Local Disaster Management Group and how this has been achieved for Weipa.
Julie Brook from the Queensland Reconstruction Authority presented on the progress of the TCICA Regional Resilience Strategy, which is a locally-led and regionally coordinated blueprint to strengthen disaster resilience. Informed by on-country engagement with councils and community members, the strategy takes a multi-hazard approach to improving resilience and focusses on the priorities of critical infrastructure, remoteness, cultural connection, leadership, and biosecurity and food security.
Dr Robyn Littlewood, Chief Executive of Health and Wellbeing Queensland briefed the forum on the development of a Remote Food Security Action Plan, which is being developed in partnership with TCICA and LGAQ. Improving food security in remote townships is vital if better long-term health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are to be achieved and if Closing the Gap targets are to be met. A series of roundtable meetings during the week have focussed attention on the relationships between food security and housing, supply chains, and economic development.
TCICA’s Regional Resilience Coordinator Pip Schroor presented on the development of a regional disaster dashboard for the TCICA region. The purpose of the dashboard is to support local disaster coordination for all councils and to improve community awareness of critical information such as weather warnings, road closures, energy network outages, flood alerts, fire incidents, and other emergency information. This project is funded under the 2020-21 Queensland Resilience and Risk Reduction Fund.
Well-respected town planner Nikky Huddy of Planz Town Planning showcased the Yarrabah Microgrid Feasibility Study, which seeks to examine the range of possibilities for Yarrabah to be a self-reliant, sustainable township, and the opportunities available to remote communities to leapfrog to new technologies such as e-mobility. Migrogrid feasibility studies will soon be underway for Muralag Island in the Torres Strait and the township of Napranum.
Lieutenant Colonel Clare O’Neill, Commanding Officer of the 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment gave an engaging presentation on the role of the Australian Defence Force in disaster planning and recovery, and especially the role played by full-time and part-time members of the 51FNQR in the north. Forum participants heard the stories of many local Army personnel serving in the north and their pride in being able to keep their families and communities safe.
Participants heard from Alex Polson, Director of Market Development at Source Global about an exciting and innovative new technology that generates sustainable, high quality drinking water using the power of the sun to extract water from the air. Hailed as the first off-grid, climate resilient, and decentralised drinking water solution for remote and Indigenous communities, the technology has the potential to ensure affordable, long term water access and security for communities.
Doug Stephens, Group Managing Director of Cairns-based AirBridge Networks also gave a thought-provoking presentation on solutions to address connectivity issues in remote townships and provide connectivity to areas without any services. The forum heard about how AirBridge has supported many remote councils and other organisations to achieve cost-effective reliable connectivity and internet speeds not previously experienced.
Caroline Whitehead, Senior Advisor of Blue Card Services within the Queensland Government spoke to participants about how to support First Nations people navigate the blue card process, and gave an overview of how the Government is working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to improve outcomes. There are community engagement officers available who can help those seeking a blue card, and the department is planning to visit several communities later in October.
Other presentations included an update from Laura Boekel at the Bureau of Meteorology on the upcoming disaster season and the possibility of a higher than average number of cyclones, and from Charlie Casa at Ergon Energy on their disaster preparedness and planning as well as steps that individuals, families and businesses should be taking now to be prepared.
Although COVID-19 was not a focus of this forum, participants acknowledged the significant learnings arising from managing the impacts of the pandemic over the past 18 months. While Cape York and the Torres Strait region have not yet seen a case of COVID, the threat of COVID remains and it is likely that it will reach communities in the future. Ensuring as many local residents as possible are fully vaccinated remains critical, as does the need for well-tested COVID management planning. Communities will continue to be challenged by the lack of available housing and other appropriate accommodation if quarantining and isolation of large numbers of people becomes necessary. This must be a key consideration in any planning and management.
Ongoing Focus and Next Steps
Forum participants agreed that while much progress has been made, focus on the priorities and actions identified during the 2019 forum should not be lost. Several priorities will remain longer-term or ongoing actions, such as:
- Enhancing the resilience of public infrastructure, and especially energy and telecommunications networks.
- Continuing to build the strength of local disaster management groups.
- Managing media engagement and consistent public information during disaster events.
- Building the resilience and capability of local State Emergency Service and Rural Fire Service groups.
- Ensuring cyclone shelters and other places of refuge in remote townships meet public shelter design and maintenance guidelines.
New priorities or actions identified during this years’ forum include:
- Standardising house numbering systems in remote townships to allow for clear identification.
- Identifying staff and volunteer retention strategies.
- Media training for key community spokespeople during times of disaster.
- Good community messaging and appropriate styles and message mediums.
- Ensuring the various levels of disaster and resilience planning by different or competing organisations and agencies is consistent or complementary.
- Maps showing locations of emergency shelters and places of refuge in communities.
- Developing a better understanding of community vulnerabilities.
- Understanding volunteer capability.
- Ensuring Local Disaster Management Plans are current and operational.
- Understanding and strengthening re-supply links.
- Better protection for utility services.
A post-forum report will be compiled and circulated to participants, along with copies of the presentations delivered.
The level of engagement and participation in the forum was a clear demonstration of the need for practical and focussed discussion on disaster preparation, planning and resilience at the regional scale. Further, the senior level representation by agencies such as the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, the Australian Defence Force, the Queensland Reconstruction Authority, the Queensland Police Service, and Queensland Fire and Emergency Services highlighted the value of the forum to key government strategists, advisers and decision-makers.
TCICA looks forward to hosting the 2022 Indigenous Local Government Disaster Resilience Forum to build on the significant achievements to date for the betterment of all towns and communities across the Cape York and Torres Strait region.
TCICA gratefully acknowledges the support of the Australian and Queensland governments under the 2019-20 Queensland Resilience and Risk Reduction Fund for this forum.