Clem Sunter, information and articles from the web:
Learning from Wivenhoe
Author: Clem Sunter
By Clem Sunter
ago, I was asked by the Local Government Managers
Association in Australia to do a series of lectures on
scenario planning to the management of the major cities.
In Brisbane, I remember at the lunch I addressed turning to
my neighbour at the table and asking a question which any
scenario planner worth his salt would ask: “What is your
biggest uncertainty – the one that would give you the
His response was: “Another flood like the one we had in
1974. But we do have a buffer in the Wivenhoe Dam which
should mitigate the consequences of any repeat event.”
It is now a year since the second flood which was just as
catastrophic as the first one in terms of personal tragedy
and loss of property. An enquiry has already been held into
what went wrong and come up with recommendations to avoid
yet another disaster.
I would like to add my own advice in terms of the work I
have done in the field of catastrophic risk management.
By Clem Sunter
These are the steps I would take right now to ensure the
best chance of making the correct decisions in the wake of
another abnormal weather event:
1) You have to assemble a representative team of all the
players involved in a phenomenon such as this. It would
include the weather specialists, the dam management and
Brisbane’s city management and emergency services. Based on
the experiences of 1974 and 2011, the first task would be to
come up with a set of scenarios indicating the various ways
a repeat event of abnormal rainfall could unfold.
Each scenario should have its own selection of flags
indicating that the odds on that particular scenario are
rising. It is as important to identify the flags as it is to
explore the causal sequence of events contained in the
scenario itself. Specifically were there flags from January
1 – 8 last year which the weather forecasters were raising
and which implied that something extraordinary was possibly
about to unfold? Were they communicated to dam management?
2) Having formulated the scenarios and associated flags, the
next task is to work out the consequences of the scenarios
in human and financial terms if they are allowed to play out
with no effective response. What is the cost of the physical
damage and other impacts?
This is crucial information as it is the combination of the
probability of a scenario and its impact that allows you to
judge to what level of cost you are prepared to go with
countermeasures to prevent it happening or ameliorate the
aftermath. For example, with ten years of drought up to
2011, it would have been a difficult decision to release
large amounts of water from Wivenhoe prior to the
exceptional rainfall on January 10 and 11.
By Clem Sunter
However, if the calculation had already been done on levels
of probability and damage of a no-early-release scenario, it
might have made it easier to overrule the argument of water
being a precious resource and therefore to smooth out the
eventual release so that it did not cause so much flooding.
You could still have been wrong if the rainfall had remained
normal; but the action of early release would have averted
the possibility of even more costly consequences which had
been estimated beforehand from one massive release.
That is how the decision would have been justified in the
event that the worst-case scenario did not actually happen.
Life is unpredictable and every judgement on the most
favourable option at the time of a crisis has to be based on
relative probability and impact. You can only do your best.
Doctors will tell you that too.
3) In response to the scenarios, you have to examine the
cost and effectiveness of all the options you have available
within your control: from raising the wall of the dam to
keeping more capacity in reserve to pre-emptive release of
water to the banning of property development in the most
serious flood-risk zones downstream of the dam.
Some options might require action now (such as changing the
design of the dam) and some options would only be triggered
at the time of another potential catastrophe.
4) In order to choose between options and devise the optimum
strategy to handle the different scenarios, you need to
separate the drills which are necessary to take the
consequences of another emergency out of play altogether
from the drills which will be exercised to minimise the
damage if it is unavoidable – pre-emption versus
amelioration. Crucially, you must identify now the list of
individuals involved and settle on the best network through
which they can communicate prior to and during another
Given the preparatory work around the scenarios, flags,
probabilities and possible impacts; and given the
examination of the options, decisions and drills appropriate
for the scenarios: the conversation will be that much more
nuanced and educated; and the speed and quality of response
that much more balanced and assured.
Obviously, the purpose of this article is to take the
lessons from the Wivenhoe experience and apply them to any
situation of great risk anywhere in the world. You have to
do the scenario work up front – and simulate the best course
of action from what is available.
Since airline pilots are required to do this until it
becomes second nature, the same logic should apply to the
managers of any risky enterprise.
By Clem Sunter