Whose Fault Are The Floods?

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As March began so did another bout of flooding, the third since late January on Australia’s east coast. In fact there have been three bad summers of flooding in succession in Queensland and NSW, and premiers and mayors in both states are pleading for federal funding to soften the blows. Canberra is beginning to respond, too, with a promise of money for mitigation works at Roma and Ipswich and the raising of Warragamba Dam to mitigate the problems of flooding on the Hawkesbury River.

Probably, there is more money to come. Mitigation’s moment may have arrived. But why is flooding — the single most dollar-costly agent of natural disaster in Australia — so damaging?

If there is a single, simple answer, it is because governments allow it to be. Governments permit development in flood-liable locations, and when floods occur they compound the error by throwing huge sums of money at relief and inadequate post-flood fixes which are guaranteed to be damaged again. And they mitigate poorly or fail to mitigate at all. With few exceptions, governments spend heavily on post-flood relief and restoration but do not invest relatively small amounts which could prevent much of the damage occurring in the first place.

Governments seek development and growth, and so does business. Development is driven to choose the best, often the cheapest locations. But it is not driven by human safety considerations or considerations of long-term economic viability in the context of natural disasters — even those which are certain to occur, will have severe consequences and cannot be prevented.

Take land use planning, which tends to consider natural disasters only at the margins. In this matter, planning departments, developers and business are as one. Only the most hazardous locations are willingly excluded from development processes.

Consider the performance of the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure in relation to flooding over recent decades. During the late 1950s, after a terrible flood at Maitland, the state government banned further residential development in areas that had been deeply flooded in 1955. The restriction held for half a century.

But the local council chafed at its inability to attract development to its commercial centre. The residents of Maitland and Horseshoe Bend moved their houses to the nearby hills, drifted away or died, the population declined to a third of its pre-1955 level and the CBD showed signs of becoming moribund.

Recently, the department quietly lifted the restriction on new housing. The council wanted to revitalise the CBD and there was strong developer interest in exploiting the area for residential and commercial use. Large-scale residential development around the CBD would return the population to its pre-1955 level and restore the CBD’s market.

Now, 1700 new dwellings are planned for central Maitland over the next 20 years, with the federal government funding much of the necessary infrastructure. The dwellings will be in an area which has levee protection only against floods much smaller than the 1955 one. Their floors will be above the level of the assessed 1 per cent (so-called 100-year) flood, but when the levees are overtopped the residents will be marooned, living above floodwaters for days if they have not evacuated before overtopping occurs.

Those who stay will not enjoy the privations of days without power and communications, and some will call to be rescued. If fire breaks out in dwellings, a not uncommon occurrence during floods, the consequences will be horrific.

On the Hawkesbury on Sydney’s north-western edge, steady growth has occurred for decades in areas which were deeply flooded in the great flood of 1867. Some areas were also badly affected in lesser floods later. But that has not deterred development, about which the state government has been unflaggingly enthusiastic. It has championed substantial residential development in the Penrith Lakes area, inundated in 1867, and a major commercial-industrial estate on the floodplain of South Creek at Riverstone which goes under quite frequently. Councils too push for more residential development in flood-prone locations.

The Hawkesbury floodplain is a disaster in waiting. Yet the flood threat is downplayed by the government, the department and councils.

Government departments, according to Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister, exist to support the interests of vested interests. Planning departments certainly supports developers and development. They do not exist to create a brake on growth. Indeed in recent times the NSW government’s manual on floodplain development has been modified, at the behest of the department, to make it easier to develop flood-prone land for urban purposes.

But this leads to irrational investment patterns and thence to disastrous results. Floods cause damage, and governments are forced by the politics of damage rectification to restore infrastructure and provide generous relief to those who have suffered.

As floods subside governments are lobbied for, and sometimes provide, mitigation measures — which encourages people to think the flood problem has been solved. In turn, this contributes to an intensification of development in the "protected" areas (as is happening in Maitland). But it is almost never possible to exclude genuinely big floods, and sooner or later the mitigation is overwhelmed. Because of land use intensification the losses are greater than they would have been had the mitigation not been undertaken.

This does not mean that mitigation is inappropriate. It prevents damage in the lesser floods, but post-mitigation behaviour often ensures that its purpose is negated.

The pattern is more damage, more relief, more spending to restore infrastructure, demands for protection, more development … and more damage. Along the way, prolonged periods without floods encourage further floodplain development as councils forget what flooding means.

In the nineteenth century whole towns could be relocated after bad floods as happened at Gundagai, Moama, Bega, Nowra and Taree. But because of the volume of fixed infrastructural and other investment today, that has become virtually impossible except for small communities such as Grantham, in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley. Grantham was largely relocated to high ground after the flood of 2011.

But wholesale urban relocation is not a bud we can regraft on any large scale. We could, though, stop urban development on floodplains and stop the problem becoming ever larger and more unmanageable. It won’t happen, though, when governments spend heavily on flood relief and then allow further inappropriate urban development.

The legacy of flooding has grown inexorably over the decades. No government, state or federal, has tried in a sustained way to restrain the problem. Decades ago it might have been stopped from growing, but we seem now to be locked in to the certainly of wasteful spending forever.

Governments at all levels seek the benefits of development. They cannot recognise the disbenefits their methods generate. Australia is probably on the verge of significant governmental action on flood mitigation. This would be to the good, but the best mitigation would be to stop the problem from growing and focus on dealing with the legacy of past mistakes.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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