Australia’s iconic and much-loved coasts are constantly changing, which reflects their beauty as well as their fragility.
In the face of more intense storms and surging seas, as predicted with climate change, coastal communities are looking for ways to protect the beaches and coastal landscapes they love so much.
Natural processes such as winds, waves, tides, currents and catchment flows move sand and sediments, reshaping coastlines. These processes—especially big swells, high tides and storms—sometimes affect places we value, and the way we use and enjoy the coast.
As coastal hazard events occur more often and with greater intensity, our coastal values, public and private assets including facilities and homes, businesses and infrastructure are now at increasing risk of damage and loss.
Post-storm clean ups and damage assessments are becoming more regular for land and asset managers and owners in our coastal areas. Victorians recently experienced this after a wild storm earlier this year (June 2021) that was felt from the east Gippsland Lakes region near Victoria’s 2500 km coastline to Apollo Bay in the south-west.
Whether it’s the east-coast lows that hit south-east Australia or the ferocity of tropical cyclones in the north, large parts of our coastline are having to adapt to changing conditions.
Coastal adaptation plans depend on 3 pillars: technical, engagement and strategy
State governments are working with local councils to support them to plan and adapt more effectively to these increasing coastal hazards. Queensland is well into its QCoast2100 coastal hazards adaptation program.
New South Wales has various coastal initiatives within their Adapt NSW program, and Victoria is ramping up its coastal programs. Our team in the Alluvium Group has been involved in numerous initiatives across these states to help them plan their adaptation to coastal hazards. For example, in the past three years we have worked with over a dozen of Queensland’s coastal councils to help them to develop strategies to adapt to coastal hazards. More recently, this has also involved developing business cases for ‘black swan’ extreme events—ones that are hard to predict.
Our approach to coastal hazard adaptation planning is broadly based on integrating three core pillars of work—technical, engagement and strategy— in a continuous process. This approach is critical for ensuring coastal adaptation plans are based on the best available science, are relevant, have ownership, and are ultimately implemented by stakeholders.
Victoria is currently developing a state-wide approach to long-term coastal hazard resilience and adaptation. Land managers are experiencing and responding to impacts of the changing climate on their coastlines. Some councils, like Hobsons Bay and Kingston Council, are already proactively thinking about adaptation and resilience, and embedding it into their coastal management. On-the-ground initiatives, strategic planning, as well as conversations about climate and adaptation within their organisation and with their communities means they are more prepared for future changes on their coast.
Climate change involves a range of uncertain outcomes. We frequently need to make assumptions to accommodate the impacts from this uncertainty within our estimates of the benefits of adaptation options. We work with stakeholders to test and validate our assumptions.
Using economics to help determine the most appropriate approach to adaptation requires a stakeholder’s understanding of the local economy, the assets at risk and what people care about.
Assessing coastal risks using economic tools means governments, asset owners, businesses and investor stakeholders are able to ‘mainstream’ coastal management into existing decision-making and investment processes.
Listening to community values is critical
Listening to stakeholders is a key first step. We initiate ongoing engagement with the community and other coastal asset owners and interest groups early in the planning process.
In the Sunshine Coast Council region, for example, a community advisory group was set up. Such groups are important for sharing their diverse expertise, testing messages and working with council to advise on difficult decisions.
The Sunshine Coast community advisory group had a real push for naturebased solutions to maintain as much of their natural coastal environment as possible.
The push was backed up by a well developed communications process and survey of more that 600 residents which indicated that 70% of people prioritised natural ecosystems, wildlife, landscape features and recreational opportunities. Three-quarters of the survey respondents go to the beach at least once a week, and more than 80% see the need to prepare for and recover from future coastal hazards.
This led to a concept called ‘the Blue Heart’, where low-lying agricultural land with declining value is being restored as a more natural area for storing floodwater and sequestering carbon.
When we consult with the community, we need feedback to understand what they value and the benefits to them from implementing adaptation options.
For the Sunshine Coast, we used ‘ecosystem services’ as a decision-making framework to look at the benefits of adapting to climate change using nature-based solutions to protect the assets and lifestyle valued by the community.
The ecosystem services approach looks at the benefits provided by natural ecosystems in coastal areas including:
- provisioning (e.g. providing mangrove areas for fish breeding)
- regulating (e.g. naturally improving water quality)
- protecting culture (e.g. protecting sacred sites or access to the beach for recreation)
- supporting (e.g. supporting natural nutrient recycling or protecting habitat).
We found that areas such as the Blue Heart flood plain help to reduce floods and provide a range of other ecosystem services. These include
improving water quality, storing carbon and protecting the cultural values of the Kabi Kabi Traditional Owners.
Similarly, detailed, well-planned and ongoing engagement while Victoria’s Hobsons Bay and Kingston communities developed their coastal and marine management plans was essential. It allowed us to hear valuable insights and perspectives from council staff, Traditional Owners, other agencies and the community that we were able to integrate into the plans. We also worked with the Redland City Council (south-east Queensland) where understanding the values of Traditional Owners was again important.
In that case, we considered potential damage to cultural assets like artefacts and sacred sites from climate hazards. For Traditional Owners, it was important that this damage was included in the assessment alongside damage to other types of infrastructure such as roads or water treatment plants.
Working with two different Indigenous groups at Trial Bay in NSW was crucial for developing their agreed coastal hazard adaptation plan, which includes 25 different actions. We were told that this was the first time that these two groups had sat down together to plan.
Our work would have limited value without the contribution of stakeholders, including the community. It would not be nuanced enough to reflect the range of tangible and intangible impacts experienced by the community.
Using inclusive and genuine participatory processes to engage people
It is important to use genuine, truly participatory processes in engaging Traditional Owners and all stakeholders—council, other asset owners, community and interest groups—to develop coastal hazard adaptation strategies.
We need to have positive discussions with all stakeholders about what is important about the coastline and their options to manage any adverse impacts linked to coastal hazards.
Ultimately, it is about creating shared responsibility and accountability for managing climate effects on the coast. We are not simply engaging to develop a plan, but to collaboratively manage a range of climate-related impacts into the future. Developing a coastal hazard adaptation strategy is just one step in that process.
We talk to stakeholders to create a shared narrative about our coasts as a story of change. These conversations are not just about sea-level rise, coastal inundation and erosion. They are also about imagining what a future-resilient year 2100 coast might look like.
When working with the community Elders and leaders from different communities of the Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council in Cape York to develop their Yumpla Coast Strategic Plan, we found that we needed a slightly different approach to find out what the community valued about their coast.
We spent a lot of time talking about what they wanted their coastline to look like for them, their children and their children’s children. Unsurprisingly, we found that they cared about protecting their rich cultural history, including their recent history. Marked and unmarked burial sites are often located on the foreshores and are at risk of being lost forever. They wanted to protect these, and show children where they are and what they represent to their people. They don’t want them eroded, driven over or camped on.
In the Inverloch region (Victoria), we are supporting the work of the Regional and Strategic Partnership to bring together community aspirations, the latest science, and technical assessments. Genuine and inclusive engagement with the project partners—who manage coastal land, assets and infrastructure—and with the community will be used to develop their own long-term plan to address ongoing and future coastal erosion and inundation impacts, to manage important places well into the future.
Communicating risks and options tailored to local context
Once stakeholders identify their values and agree on the risks, our team looks at the pros and cons of various options for adapting to the climate hazards in the context of individual locations along the coast.
This is where our technical expertise informs the available adaptation options. We use those options to provide probability-weighted estimates of the economic implications. Estimating the economic value of risks in this way is similar to how insurers and investors price risk, and is well understood by all stakeholders.
Everyone understands why insurance premiums are different, reflecting different risks. Analysing and communicating the economic value of coastal risks in a similar way ensures the concepts are more easily grasped by stakeholders and decision-makers.
We aim to lead, and use best practice in the technical work to better inform the strategies, rather than just do the minimum technical work required. For all our strategies we have used ‘multiple likelihood events’ [likelihood that two or more events occur at the same time] rather than the minimum required 1%. This allows for a much stronger understanding of at-risk assets.
We use a cost–benefit analysis framework to assess different options, incorporating uncertainty by drawing on stochastic modelling techniques. The real skill is in presenting this uncertainty so people can visualise it, understand it and use it to make more informed decisions.
We compare the ‘no adaptation’ scenario (base case) with various adaptation options over different time horizons. The difference in costs between the do-nothing option and the adaptation option is the benefit. This concept is shown in the figure below.
Adaptation options need to be tailored to a specific coastline. For example, some areas have recreation or camping parks along the coast. What happens if access to those parks is removed?
We are confident that the approach we have developed to identify and quantify risks, relying on stakeholder participation, can be transferred to different pasts of Australia’s coast.
Using positive messages and involving the community
In presenting adaptation options and explaining uncertainty to stakeholders, we found it was important to use positive messages. Branding is a key part of communication, and it needs to be highly visual and positive to create behaviour change.
For example, schools in the Northern Peninsula Area region were asked to draw pictures and create stories about why their coastline and beaches were special. Some of these pictures and words were included in the logo and the final Yumpla Coast Strategic Plan.
School students and our youth are an important stakeholder. They care about their coasts, they’re smart and they are open to discussing different adaptation options. They are our future influencers.
We share material online through dedicated websites. We also take information and interactive opportunities out to the community to help explain coastal hazards and risks.
People are fascinated by their coastline and the risks it faces from climate change. It’s important to go out to the community to involve them in understanding these risks, choosing options that respond to their values and acting to protect their coasts.
Protecting our coastlines relies on engaging all our stakeholders early and often.
Adam Brook, Alluvium Consulting, Principal coastal engineer
Fiona Chandler, Alluvium Consulting, Principal consultant
Lili Pechey, Natural Capital Economics, Resource and environmental economist
Phebe Bicknell, Alluvium Consulting, Senior coastal engineer
Michael Rosenthal, Alluvium Consulting, Coastal management consultant