Are we approaching a consensus on the need to manage flooding differently?

Jul 19, 2022
The Warragamba Dam
Image: Wikimedia Commons

It is possible that recent events related to flooding in New South Wales are galvanising a consensus on how we manage the threats floods pose. If that is so, we are on the verge of a phase shift in our management of floods.

The debate over whether or not Warragamba Dam should be raised as a flood mitigation measure for north-western Sydney, the extreme flooding that Lismore and other Richmond River communities experienced in February and March and now a third visitation of serious, damaging flooding in the Hawkesbury in the space of less than 18 months seem together to have brought many people together to say we need a new approach to flood management.

Perhaps Professor Elizabeth Mossop, Dean of Design, Architecture and Building at Sydney’s University of Technology, said it best on Four Corners last week. “Everything has to change, right now”, was her summary. “We cannot afford to put people in places that are at high risk”.

This was a killer line that said it all. Our thinking about how we deal with floods needs immediate, urgent, far-reaching re-orientation, Mossop was saying. The old ways will no longer do.

But of course there is a long way to go. In recent months we have seen just how powerful ministerial discretion can be in setting directions for public policy in relation to floodplains. Late last year the former state planning minister, Rob Stokes, issued a directive incorporating a set of planning principles designed to promote sustainable housing development. Then, in March, Stokes’ directive was revoked by his successor, Anthony Roberts, at a lunch of the development lobby group Urban Taskforce Australia.

Stokes is from the Liberals’ ‘moderate’ faction. Roberts is of the ‘right’. The basis of Roberts’ position was laid bare at the UTA lunch: he was seeking to cut ‘red tape’ and ‘bureaucracy’ and free up the system that builds houses. His goal was to overcome the shortage of housing and to make housing more affordable. What Stokes was doing would not achieve those ends, Roberts was suggesting, and applying the principles of his predecessor would simply make development more difficult and slow everything down.

On the other side of the ledger, it was easy to see that community resilience against weather-induced disasters would not be promoted by the introduction of the Roberts approach.

It was not hard to see the gulf between the two men’s philosophies, priorities and objectives, and impossible not to wonder how the pair could sit easily in the same cabinet room after Roberts’ revocation of Stokes’ initiative. It was also not hard to see that the Roberts way would have the potential to unravel attempts to make it more possible for communities to live less painfully, both economically and emotionally, with the inevitability of flooding. In the context of the evolution of planning over many decades, Roberts’ approach seemed to represent a step back in time.

It was interesting that his speech came just as the Hawkesbury, an area of rapid floodplain suburbanisation, was experiencing a serious flood and there has been another one since.

Most people, now, having seen the catastrophe that was Lismore and the nearby towns and villages downstream, as well as the repeated pain, trauma and loss experienced in the communities of the Hawkesbury, would probably say that we need to manage flooding differently from the way we have done it in the past. Consensus on the ‘how’ of that will be harder to reach.

The natural tendency is to grasp for ‘structural’ solutions like the raising of Warragamba Dam above Penrith and Windsor and the construction of a bigger levee at Lismore and a number of mitigation dams in the hills upstream. Structures have the great advantage of demonstrating visibly and tangibly our attempts to solve the problem. But they represent trying to wrestle the flood problem into submission. There comes a time to recognise more fully the parallel need for us to seek to live more sustainably with the problem. Fighting nature, or at least trying to defeat it, can cause great problems.

Mitigation has played a large part in helping communities in New South Wales to manage the threat. Dozens of cities, towns and suburbs have invested in levees, detention basins, bypass channels and other structures to mitigate flooding, and many dams have been built with flood storage embedded in their designs. There have been benefits derived from the structural approach.

But there are lessons here. One is that levees are periodically overtopped and huge volumes of rainfall can overwhelm the capacity of dams to store the resulting flooding. Both of these things can be disastrous. Several town-protecting levees in New South Wales have been overtopped in recent decades, and at Brisbane’s Wivenhoe Dam in 2011 a massive rain event threatened to cause the dam to fail. Huge emergency releases had to be made, and serious flooding resulted downstream. The fallout is still being felt.

Mitigation has not had its day, but we need to recognise its limitations and its downsides including, in the case of Warragamba, the negative impacts on the environment, habitat and ancient cultural sites upstream. And there is the undeniable tendency of mitigation devices to create complacency and lead to intensified development in the areas intended to be protected.

In 2015 and 2017, Stokes forestalled two attempts by the Council of the City of Maitland, in the Hunter Valley, to encourage further development behind the levees that have been built over the decades to keep floodwaters out of its low-lying Central Business District and surrounding residential areas. The Council sought to have the state’s restrictions on the floor levels of new houses relaxed for Maitland. By any measure Maitland is one of the most severely flood-liable communities in the state, and its council in effect seemed to be prepared to weaken its defences against floods. It also wanted to mandate the building of ‘docking facilities’ at first-floor level for floodboats engaged in rescuing people stuck in their homes and surrounded by floodwaters. Worrying, this was sold as an attempt to facilitate ‘evacuation’ when in fact it might easily have encouraged people to wait to be rescued rather than evacuating earlier and in their cars.

Stokes rejected both proposals, in effect citing the undermining of the benefits of the mitigation efforts of the past and the likelihood that community sustainability would be compromised if the council’s wishes were to be met. Indeed, misery would likely be wrought eventually on more people by exposing a larger population to vulnerability in the face of floods. The ‘levee paradox’ was being courted.

Roberts, one suspects, would have given priority to the benefits of ‘development’ and the stimulus to the local economy of an enlarged population to support Maitland’s ailing Central Business District. He might have given less emphasis to the potential for the ‘illfare’ that would have been generated by the inevitability that the levees would one day be overtopped as they are designed to be in genuinely large floods.

This is the old problem of economic development versus community safety and sustainability. The standard politics of it all is that the money behind development wins out in the end. Money, it is said, “finds a way”.

If we are approaching a new consensus as to how we manage the flood problem, it will be in the direction of greater restrictions on the development of floodplains. There are two ways to do this: moving to a higher level on the floodplain the ’line’ below which housing (and other urban land uses) are prohibited in future, and buying back and removing the housing created by the developmental mistakes of decades past.

Both strategies will be represented as ‘red tape’ and ‘bureaucratic obstructiveness’ and resisted by the vested interests underlying development. Some will decry the great cost especially of buy-backs of properties and note that other community needs will not be met because of them. But in the end, as expensive as a new approach will be, it cannot fail to be less costly, eventually, than a business-as-usual approach aimed at squeezing as much as possible out of the developmental potential of floodplains and guaranteeing repeated pain to lose who live on them.

The moment for a new political will to manifest itself might have arrived. This is the challenge for the New South Wales Flood Inquiry which is shortly to report to the state Premier, Dominic Perrottet who has promised to release it publicly. Will it recognise the nature of the moment? And if it does, will Perrottet and his government have the political nerve to adopt a changed approach?

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