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By Ruth Dawkins 27 June 2022 4 min read

Picture of Windsor Bridge disappearing into flood waters in March 2022.
A main bridge in Windsor, NSW vanishes during floods in March 2022. There was major flooding along the Hawkesbury River and in other parts of Sydney and NSW. Image Vince Basile/Flickr

When Australian communities are hit by hazardous events like bushfire, cyclones or flooding, it often causes major disruption to the supply of essential items like food and fuel.

But a computer modelling tool that was originally designed to reduce costs in the livestock sector is now being used to help in these challenging situations.

Working through the Australian Climate Service (ACS), CSIRO has been using the Transport Network Strategic Investment Tool (TraNSIT) to support Emergency Management Australia (EMA) in its national response role, reducing the impacts of extreme events on supply chains.

ACS is a partnership between the Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia, CSIRO and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). It was established in 2021 to support improved decision making in the face of natural hazards, ensuring the safety and resilience of Australian communities, infrastructure, and businesses.

The initial focus of the ACS is to support Emergency Management Australia and the Government's new National Recovery and Resilience Agency. Work conducted through the service will enhance the Australian Government’s response during times of extreme weather.

“One of CSIRO’s key roles in this context is to help build capability around supply chains and understand the impacts of extreme weather,” says Dr Andrew Higgins, TraNSIT Project Leader.

“We’re looking for ways to be helpful during that initial emergency response period, when there might be major disruptions to freight.”

The need for resilient supply chains

More than 1.5 billion tonnes of freight are moved around Australia each year.

TraNSIT mapped alternate freight routes for trucks as a result of the April 2022 flood event. Road closures are shown in blue on the map.

Commodities including food, fuel, forestry products and construction materials travel along supply chains from production and processing through to retailers and consumers, navigating numerous ports and sometimes several thousand kilometres of road and rail network along the way.

Major events such as bushfires and floods can significantly disrupt the supply of critical commodities to consumers.

“If there are road closures in a region due to flooding, you can sometimes end up with tonnes of fuel or food that can’t get through to communities,” says CSIRO’s Stephen McFallan, co-developer of TraNSIT.

“What we can do with the tool during that initial response phase is identify supply chain corridors that have been impacted and help identify alternative routes that make it easier to target resources where they are most needed. During the recovery period, once the floods have receded, our role changes slightly,” continues Mr McFallan.

“At that point we start to explore what steps can be taken to get supplies running again. There are only so many vehicles and so many routes, so we can run the modelling and provide the evidence base that helps decision makers prioritise.”

TraNSIT has already been put to use several times in 2022 during severe flooding events in New South Wales and Queensland, helping to aid the emergency response and mitigate the impacts of supplies not reaching crews and communities.

“During the 2021/2022 High Risk Weather Season, Emergency Management Australia (EMA) accessed CSIRO’s TraNSIT capability to support EMA’s predictive analysis, impact and consequence assessments of nationally significant events,” says Joe Buffone, Director General of EMA.

“These included the disruption of national supply chains following the impacts of Tropical Cyclone Tiffany in South Australia, and the impacts of severe weather and flooding in New South Wales and Queensland. The TraNSIT capability contributed to supporting decisions which stabilised these emergency situations, and I welcome the opportunity to work with CSIRO on continuing to mature the capability to further assist the Emergency Management community."

Planning ahead to build resilience

While the initial response and recovery periods are crucially important, TraNSIT also has a role to play in informing longer-term action and improving the resilience of supply chains. Identifying vulnerabilities in supply chains allows for interventions to remove or reduce the impacts of extreme events.

Picture of a road with a road closed sign in front due to flooding.
Floods can cause major disruptions to food, fuel and agricultural supply chains in Australia.

“The long-term resilience of Australia’s network is a big question,” says Mr McFallan. “One piece of work we’re currently undertaking is an historic analysis, so that we essentially have a library of past events that will help us identify ongoing or repeated issues.”

“It’s important to build an understanding of when those issues that crop up are actually network related,” continues Mr McFallan.

“There are some regions of Australia, especially in the Northern Territory, where the climate means there is an expectation and an acceptance that certain areas will get cut off sometimes. But other areas, such as South Australia, are getting hit harder than we would anticipate. That leads to the question of whether there are steps that can be taken to improve the situation.”

In general, Australia’s East Coast is more resilient in the face of extreme events because the higher density of roads usually makes it easier to find alternative routes in and out of communities. But as recent flooding events have shown, that isn’t always the case. If work by the TraNSIT team identifies a particularly vulnerable area, what might the response to that look like?

“There are lots of things that can be done to improve the resilience of the system,” says Dr Higgins.

“Anything from improving road quality to raising bridges or exploring alternative routes or modes of transport. CSIRO doesn’t make those decisions: our role is very much about providing the evidence base for informed decision making by others. We hope that our work can help government and industry prioritise investment and action to support Australian communities and mitigate the risk of the same problems cropping up again in future.”

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