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Why do we manage flooding so poorly?

By Chas Keys - posted Thursday, 10 January 2013


Today is the second anniversary of the devastating flooding that took so many lives in Queensland's south-east during that state's infamous 'summer of floods'. It's an appropriate moment to ask how well we deal with flooding in terms of the safety of life and the protection of material assets. Sadly, we manage it poorly; much less well than we could - and should.

Let's put the summer of 2010-11 into perspective. Across Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria there was repeated, often severe flooding between the months of September and March and more than 40 people died. These were nearly equally split between people intentionally entering floodwaters, on foot or in vehicles, and floodwaters invading the human domain as occurred in the Lockyer Valley where houses were washed away with people inside or on top of them. The 22 deaths of 10-11 January in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley represented the most in a flood episode emanating from a single rain event since the floods of the Hunter Valley and north-western NSW in 1955.

Figures on the economic cost of flooding are notoriously rubbery, but contemporary estimates for Queensland that summer placed the damage bill at about $5-7 billion. Taking this as indicative, it follows that the total cost for the three eastern mainland states would have been of the order of $10 billion in terms of damage to and loss of private and public assets. Add in the lost production and the total cost would have been much higher.

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By any measure it was a bad flood period in eastern Australia, though far from unprecedented. There were extremely bad flood years in the mid-1950s, the mid-1970s and the early 1990s as well, with deaths, dislocation and damage over large areas. Flood disaster is a recurring theme in our history. Notwithstanding a considerable reduction in deaths due to flooding over recent decades, no other natural peril has been more costly in dollar terms. Worse, the dollar cost is still rising in real terms.

Given the seriousness of the consequences of flooding and its high degree of predictability, it might be expected that we would have learned to behave defensively during floods and developed sound community coping strategies. Yet we have not. Fault lies with individuals and governments alike.

Many Australians are complacent about the dangers posed by floods. During the summer of 2010-11 a total of 15 Queenslanders were killed in 15 separate incidents because they entered floodwaters in vehicles or on foot. In one case a driver was jailed for the manslaughter of a passenger who drowned. A year later, ten people had to be rescued one after another when six cars were driven into chest-deep floodwaters in Zetland, in inner Sydney. Each car lost traction but, oblivious and lemming-like, others followed them into the water.

The internet nowadays is replete with footage of people driving through deep, fast-flowing water. They must think floodwaters are harmless, but they under-estimate the dangers.

Nor does the fault lie only with drivers. Residents are notoriously slow to react to flood warnings, often doing so only after they have seen the water rising close to their homes. Thus time to save possessions and to evacuate in relative safety is routinely lost. Here it must be said that the emergency services are not at their best in warning people of approaching danger: the task of persuading people to act before floodwaters arrive tends to be given a lower priority than resupplying those who have become isolated or evacuating those who are in imminent danger. Moreover, until recently little attention was given to educating people about minimising the harm which floods can do. Governments have been tardy in supporting educational endeavours about flooding and its dangers and much of what is done remains cheap and limited still.

Councils, too, can make flood management difficult. Not infrequently, elected people undermine State Emergency Service efforts to persuade residents to act appropriately and in a timely fashion as floods approach. Cases of mayors talking down Bureau of Meteorology flood warnings or SES advice to evacuate are legion and discourage prudent behaviour on the part of their constituents. One day, a mayor who counters SES advice will later be seen to have endangered lives and property by dissuading people from taking appropriate risk-reducing action.

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Much of the problem of flooding in this country has been inherited from previous generations. Towns were sited during the nineteenth century next to rivers and creeks for reasons of water supply and ease of transport, and once they were established there was good economic reason for their citizens to seek further growth. Governments supported them by encouraging further development even in locations which were liable to flooding. They continue to do this even as our knowledge of the seriousness of the flood problem increases. In effect, governments (including councils) ensure that the flood problem is magnified and that future generations suffer even more from it.

Certainly there have been instances of community investment in flood mitigation and in efforts to re-direct urban growth. In the half century after the disastrous floods of the mid-1950s, NSW spent well over $1 billion in today's terms on managing floods. Dozens of towns were given a measure of protection, usually in the form of levees, while many flood retention basins were constructed in Sydney. The other states lagged behind in building flood-controlling structures and in buying out the most flood-prone properties, but all invested some resources in flood mitigation and discouraged development in seriously flood-liable locations.

Nevertheless, in general their efforts were piecemeal, unsystematic and poorly sustained, and even in NSW the focus on floodplain management has waned significantly of late. Attention has shifted to other matters. Meanwhile the push to develop floodplains for urban purposes has, if anything, gathered pace over the past decade. There is a contradiction here: less mitigation, more development on floodplains. A price will inevitably be paid.

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About the Author

Chas Keys is a flood consultant, an Honorary Associate of Risk Frontiers at Macquarie University and a former Deputy Director-General of the NSW State Emergency Service.

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