Droughts And Flooding Plains. And Fires. And Climate Change. Brace yourself.


Not long ago I argued in New Matilda that the impacts of floods and bush fires in Australia are the consequence not largely of climate change, but of land use decisions made over the decades.

Basically, we have built too much in badly chosen places.

But it is likely that climate change, if it follows the paths scientists predict, will eventually worsen many of the impacts of floods and bush fires. Temperatures and sea levels are expected to rise and bouts of flood-producing rainfall are likely to become more intense.

So what should we do? To begin with, we should do more in the way of mitigation. Only one state, NSW, has ever made a serious effort in flood mitigation.

Since the early 1960s about $1.4 billion dollars in today's terms has been spent on it in that state. All three levels of government have contributed.

Scores of communities have been given some protection. Levees and flood bypasses were constructed, buildings were raised or removed from the most severely flood-prone locations, detention basins were built and new housing was banned from the most dangerous areas.

The other states did less. Their flood mitigation activity was piecemeal.

And even in NSW, development continued to occur on floodplains, partially cancelling out the benefits that mitigation had brought.

Now, an intensification of this trend is discernible, the state having relaxed some impediments to floodplain development. Further urban development in flood-prone areas is being permitted, sometimes on a large scale.

At Maitland in the Hunter region north of Sydney, 1,700 new dwellings are planned for land that was deeply inundated in the great Hunter River flood of 1955. Meanwhile the state's investment in flood mitigation has slipped from its high point in the 1990s.

In Queensland, successive governments largely failed to adopt urban development strategies that were 'defensive' against floods. Indeed, new residential subdivisions have continued to appear in areas subject to flooding.

The land use errors of the past are still being made, and the state is far behind NSW in terms of the application of the standard mitigation tools. Notwithstanding some efforts since 2011, many fewer towns have levees.

For the bush fire threat, fire-fighting agencies were developed and resourced for the purpose of reducing community vulnerability. Some even won consent roles in relation to applications for new development in fire-prone areas.

But people continue to seek to live in well-treed environments in the Blue Mountains, the Dandenongs, the Adelaide Hills and the east coast of Tasmania, often building in ways that are inappropriate to their locations.

Generally speaking the effort to encourage more fire-resistant construction has been weak, ill-directed and opposed on cost grounds, and hazard-reduction burning may be insufficient to keep fuel loads in check. And despite years of exhortation, few people have yet developed fire plans.

How should we approach the problem of vulnerability, given that climate change will likely increase the risks?

First, we need to deal with the existing 'legacy' issues: we should admit past mistakes and remove development from the most dangerous locations.

Second, we should avoid, as far as possible, further building on floodplains and in bush.

Third, we should invest more in mitigation to protect those who remain in vulnerable areas.

And fourth, we must contribute to tackling climate change by slowing its pace and/or by adapting to it.

These are huge challenges. Good policy will be difficult to implement. Climate change occurs only slowly, and as individuals we cannot feel it. The intensification it could bring to floods and fires is not well accepted.

Meanwhile, individual decisions to live in flood- or fire-prone locations make, by themselves, no significant difference to the overall quantum of vulnerability. But collectively they have a large and growing impact.

Australians accept the great inefficiency associated with the relief and recovery spending that follows natural disasters. This spending is growing and is repeated when floods and fires damage or destroy again, indeed over and over, what has been repaired or replaced.

The Victorian floods of 2010-11 cost nearly a billion dollars in relief and recovery spending by government. NSW probably spent about the same amount over that summer, Queensland vastly more. And beyond that were the insurance and private costs of recovery.

There was no outcry over the spending, or about the levy Canberra established to help pay for the damage in Queensland. Moreover, individuals dug deep for appeals to help those who had suffered.

We were generous. But we were not efficient.

Our politicians, anxious to support those who have lost so much, emphasize speedy rebuilding rather than rebuilding sustainably with repeats of disasters in mind.

The longer view is not taken, and the opportunity to reduce vulnerability immediately after it has been demonstrated is largely squandered.

The legacy of poor decisions continues to grow, therefore. Meanwhile further atmospheric warming will probably worsen an already bad situation.

The fractious debate over tackling CO2, the key element in climate change attributable to human activity, continues. The carbon tax has gone, the emissions trading system it was to evolve into will not now eventuate and confidence in 'direct action' remains low.

It is as if we have decided not to join the international effort to rein in the climate change which might threaten us.

On the land use side of the equation, stopping or even slowing growth in vulnerable areas will be politically fraught because it will offend land-owners (including land-banking developers) who want to get value from their assets.

It will also be seen as denying us options in living styles and residential location. And buying back substantial amounts of the legacy that has already been created ─ by paying those who live in areas of high risk to leave ─ will be expensive. 

Property rights will rule, not community safety or efficiency in the management of the costs which will arise from inappropriate development.

Nor are we making much progress in adapting to the hazards by developing building codes that give real protection against floods and fires. We do not require people to insure themselves against disasters or make them pay the true costs of protecting their dwellings.

So we will continue to bear the costs of bailing out those who have suffered. We are committing ourselves to ever larger spending on relief and recovery. We might do more in mitigation, but without also halting new development in at-risk areas this will only slow the growth in vulnerability rather than reducing it.

With stronger mitigation we could do a lot to reduce the impacts of natural disasters today, though we probably won't. And we could contribute more to the global effort to address the likely impacts of future climate change, but that too looks increasingly unlikely.

We will lose as much to nature's perils as we deserve. And we will deserve to lose more if we don't tackle the legacy we have created and stop worsening it.

Hard decisions are needed, but we lack the will to make them. We seem bent on intensifying our vulnerability, guaranteeing more pain and more spending on relief and recovery.

Economically and socially, it is madness. It represents a failure of society and government.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.