Planning for Catastrophe

Warwick Rowell, Thursday 16 January 2014

Permaculturists spend a lot of time looking for things that work, and seeing if they can be slightly modified for use in pursuing their activities. We call it “Looking over the fence”.

Over the years, many similar principles have been derived, but they would need to be the subject of another article, or a book, or even a series!

This article is to do with the principle of Catastrophe Planning, and here we have borrowed a simple technology from Occupational Health and Safety practices of companies like Woodside, and others.

This particular exercise was derived for a quiz night attended by about 250 people, over twenty years ago. We did not just want to have fun, we also wanted to introduce guests to Permaculture ideas in a novel way, we wanted to get some good information from members about what they needed most from their committee over the coming years, and we also wanted to pool some thoughts and opinions. The sheet below was one attempt at gathering some information as to possible catastrophes, and members’ opinions as to their importance.

They did indentify several more types of catastrophe, but they could all be seen as contained in those already listed. One was cyclone; but a cyclone could produce eight of the impacts detailed below.

As a group they suggested we should give highest priority to water contamination. This was an astute assessement: in those days Perth was just starting its major expansions to the north and south, and most suburban households got their mains water from the reservoir at King’s Park, with a bit if treated bore water thrown in. It would only take one “event” there and many would be impacted.

As a result of that meeting, one of our members found a source of 100 litre food grade plastic containers that were otherwise being thrown out, after bringing fruit juice concentrates to a wholesaler. About 20 members took between 3 and 6 each, filled them up, stored them in a cool dark place, and may still be tipping them out on a garden bed, and refilling them once a year.

Catastrophe Priority Setting

Type of catastrophe Likelyhood Severity Priority 
Food shortages
Power failures
Water contamination
Major accident
Job loss
Serious injury / health problem
Internal house fire
Wind damage
Water penetration damage/td>
Building collapse
Bush fire
Severe erosion

Completing the table:

  1. Add your own ideas about catastrophes that could occur for you and yours, where you are now, to the bottom of column 1.
  2. In column 2, rank each line in terms of the likelihood of it occurring in the some time frame that is relevant for you: the next five years, your lifetime, your grandchildren’s lifetime… 1: most likely, 2: next most likely, 3: next and so on.
  3. In column 3, rank each line again in terms of its severity. Consider the number of people involved, the time it takes to recover, the cost. 1: most severe, etc
  4. For each line, add these two numbers into the fourth column.
  5. Allocate the most time and resources to the selected lines with the lowest number in the fourth column – they are the highest priority; they are the most likely to occur, and their impact is the most severe.