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Coastal risks need mitigating

Stretching more than 2000 kilometres, Victoria’s sprawling coastlines are treasured assets visited by millions each year, and a place that one in five of us call home.

While the pandemic has seen more Victorians take advantage of the lifestyle benefits of a sea change, recent events show these places are increasingly exposed to the impacts of a changing climate, with tragic consequences.

A cliff face at Victoria’s Bells Beach has already collapsed this year, leading to the death of a man in his 20s. Off the coast of Sydney’s northern beaches, large swells and high tides eroded Collaroy Beach, washing away sand in front of a sea wall intended to protect surrounding properties from damage.

These and many other climate-related events across the country are prompting fresh warnings from property valuers of the rapidly changing risk profile, with home prices in some coastal suburbs potentially facing a material decline in as little as 18 months.

Australia’s central bank warned late last year that the value of properties considered to be at ‘high risk’ of climate events could decline sharply if current prices don’t reflect the long-term risks. They’ve identified more than 250 suburbs vulnerable to climate impacts within the next 30 years, with many of these located on the coastline.

Faced with rising sea levels, coastal erosion and increasingly severe storm surges, governments will need to continue to invest in effective measures in coastal protection and adaptation.

Victoria’s 30-year infrastructure strategy finds that many of Victoria’s coastal protection assets are in poor condition or approaching the end of their life. These include a mix of natural and built infrastructure to help protect against inundation and erosion, including sea walls, artificial headlines, dune management and beach renourishment.

Left unchecked, climate-related events and activities risk further threatening residential, commercial and industrial property, as well as essential public infrastructure. In Victoria, a sea level rise of 0.8 metres could put up to $18.3 billion of infrastructure at risk of inundation and erosion, including up to 48,000 homes.

Erosion is already impacting coastlines at popular tourist destinations Phillip Island and Inverloch, in addition to large stretches of beaches at Apollo Bay and Marengo.

To further safeguard Victoria’s coasts, Infrastructure Victoria has recommended an additional $30 million be committed to coastal protection upgrades and maintenance, including beach and dune protection and rehabilitation and storm surge protection over the next eight years. This would build on previous one-off funding commitments and allow for more strategic management of the coastal assets most at risk.

To support communities to proactively plan for risks from rising sea levels and extreme weather, Infrastructure Victoria has also recommended the Victorian Government develop clear guidance on coastal adaptation planning, with thresholds, triggers and planning guidelines to support local area decision-making.

The government is developing a framework and guidelines to enable long-term coastal hazard adaption through Victoria’s Resilient Coast Project, with an initial pilot anticipated in early 2022.

In doing so, we need to be planning for scenarios where even the best coastal protection defences don’t hold up. That means giving communities clear guidance on the risks facing their local areas, the circumstances where it may be sensible to protect or modify infrastructure, or when to retreat and let nature take its course.

A failure to effectively plan for and respond to the risks facing our coastline could leave many communities and property owners unnecessarily vulnerable to the consequences of a changing climate.

Jonathan Spear is Acting CEO of Infrastructure Victoria. 

The article originally appeared in the Herald Sun on Monday, January 17. 

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