The independent New South Wales flood inquiry has landed

Aug 23, 2022
Water catchment Warragamba river and dam in Greater Sydney at Blue Mountains
Image: iStock

The much-awaited report of the Independent NSW Flood Inquiry has been released.

It is a document which has many strengths and much promise, in addition to some deficiencies. If all goes well with the adoption of its recommendations over the coming decade or more, it might one day be seen as a landmark document in Australian flood management. It might even achieve the status of becoming the harbinger of the most far-reaching reforms in the field since the New South Wales state government first became involved in flood mitigation on a substantial scale during the 1950s and began to focus on land use management on floodplains during the 1970s. In those days NSW quickly came to lead the nation in the management of flooding, a very costly threat to the state’s interests.

The Flooding and the Inquiry’s Remit

The 2022 Inquiry was brought about by the extreme flooding on the Northern Rivers in February and March, together with several floods in 2021 and early 2022 on the Hawkesbury-Nepean river system in Sydney’s north-west. The Hawkesbury floods were severe in their consequences but their impacts fell far short of those that would have been experienced had they been as large as the worst floods ever recorded there. The property and infrastructural damage caused by the floods of the past 18 months was considerable, and the emotional tolls wrought on the residents of the Northern Rivers and the Hawkesbury were (and remain) likewise significant.

The Inquiry’s remit was wide-ranging, incorporating examinations of the preparation for and responses to the floods by government agencies and their efforts in the recovery phase. Recommendations were sought on these matters and on dealing with the safety issues posed by the floods, the gauging used for flood prediction, the impacts of flooding on essential services, land use planning and building standards in areas prone to flooding, adaptations needed to effectively manage future flood risks, co-ordination between levels of government and public communication and advice systems and strategies during flood times.

The Agencies

Space limitations preclude a full appraisal of all the recommendations here. Suffice it to say that agency weaknesses were canvassed and the words ‘failure’ and ‘failed’ were used in a number of contexts in relation to agency effectiveness as far as the management of the effects of the floods was concerned. Some limited restructuring of the combat agency for floods, the State Emergency Service, has been recommended. The SES was criticised for a number of aspects of its preparation for floods (including a lack of reviews and exercising of flood plans and inadequate engagement of communities on matters relating to flood risks) and for deficiencies in some of its real-time response activity especially at Lismore. The SES’s regional structure was also criticised as not having been appropriate in supporting local SES units in relation to their flood management roles.

The need for the SES to resurrect its state headquarters planning group, abandoned a few years ago as an ill-advised cost-cutting measure, was identified. ‘Back-office’ and corporate service functions, it is recommended, should be ceded to the Rural Fire Service. The Inquiry also recommends that the involvement of ‘informal’ community assets like Lismore’s so-called ‘tinny army’ be facilitated for future floods.

Resilience NSW was found not to have performed as intended, with its responses judged to have been slow and cumbersome. Possibly Resilience NSW in its short life has never carved out the ground it was intended to till or convinced the community of its value. It is recommended by the Inquiry that the agency should be much scaled down and rebadged specifically to focus on recovery in the first 100 days after a flood. Recovery NSW, the proposed successor agency, will inevitably be required to ensure that issues related to the restoration of flood-damaged housing are attended to more quickly than was managed by Resilience NSW in Lismore earlier this year.

The Centrality of Land Use

The critical issue of the use of flood liable land for essentially ‘urban’ purposes was given considerable attention as was a proposed move towards a more specifically risk-based approach to future floodplain development. These are spheres of great promise as far as the Inquiry’s recommendations are concerned.

Tackling the flood issue in an effective manner requires a focus on the root causes of the problems flooding causes for communities. These causes are to be found in the ways we utilise floodplains, especially when towns and city suburbs are built upon them. Urbanisation of floodplains is fraught with danger in terms of human safety and economic sustainability, and we have been developing our floodplains for housing, commerce and industry virtually since the beginning of European settlement. We have struggled to constrain the developmental pressures which make floodplains attractive to development; rather, we have sought to provide mitigation in the form of levees, detention basins and flood bypasses. This mitigation has been beneficial, but reducing future development in areas that are liable to flooding will be critical to future appraisals of the Flood Inquiry’s endeavours.

The Inquiry recommends that stronger crimps be placed on development on floodplains and that a risk-based approach be taken in decision making rather than relying on statistical measures such as the ‘line’ created on a map to denote the level reached by the so-called one-in-100-years (1% annual exceedance probability) flood. It also makes it clear that buy-backs and land swaps should be employed ‘urgently’ to move people out of risky environments, but this is not something that is likely to be achievable for many in a matter of months. These recommendations are very much to be welcomed from a human welfare perspective but will not be easy to implement.

A note of caution is necessary in relation to the call for strong restrictions on development on floodplains. If this means no new building on land likely to be inundated by the Probable Maximum Flood, a very high standard (and probably a politically unattainable one) will have been set. People would be surprised at how far an assessed PMF can be above the highest flood measured at a location.

Responses to the Report

The Inquiry’s report has not been met with enthusiasm everywhere. Particularly in Lismore and nearby communities, there is much demoralisation and uncertainty over the future as far as housing is concerned. People in the Northern Rivers are understandably frustrated, nearly six months after their big flood, that there is no quick or easy solution to their distress. Likewise some in the Hawkesbury, their houses having taken in water on three or four occasions over the past 18 months, are at their wits’ ends. It is easy to sympathise with the plight of such people, but the Inquiry cannot offer more than broad guidance to a recovery process that cannot be completed speedily. The details will be very much up to government.

There are places where the Inquiry’s findings and recommendations are difficult to follow. It is likely that there will be much difficult discussion in coming months, as agencies seek to come to grips with just what is meant by some of the recommendations. Some confusion is evident in relation to the future directions the Inquiry has sought to identify, and some matters are left unresolved.

For example, the Inquiry has not come up with a clear answer to the question as to whether the Warragamba Dam should be raised to allow a temporary storing of floodwaters and thus mitigate the effects of flooding downstream. The Inquiry’s lack of firm support for the Warragamba project may be telling. Premier Dominic Perrottet, and many people in the Penrith, Blacktown and Hawkesbury local government areas, will doubtless be disappointed that the Inquiry has not given a more definitive direction on this matter. The decision on the dam is thus fully in the government’s hands and will not be able to be justified on the basis on the Inquiry’s imprimatur. The Premier and some of his ministers have spoken in favour of the initiative which also has strong backing from Infrastructure NSW, but it is by no means certain that support will be forthcoming from the Commonwealth whose financial support will be needed for the project to proceed.

Climate Change in Relation to Floods

The Inquiry struggled with questions about the role of climate change in causing or exacerbating these floods. Its report is diffident on this matter, seemingly wanting proof ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that climate change is in any way worsening the problem of flooding when the standard should surely be based on the ‘balance of probability’. Science knows that as air temperature rises, the moisture-carrying capacity of the atmosphere increases and there is more energy to trigger weather drivers like east-coast low pressure systems that generate flood-producing rains. Likewise it is clear that over the long term of decades sea level has risen, on average by about 25cm in the past century, with obvious implications for coastal and estuarine flooding and erosion.

These trends are well understood, not controversial and clearly have momentum, which is to say that their impacts on flooding are likely to become more clear rather than less. We should not be waiting for further measured detail on them: to do that will encourage passivity rather than bold action. Tepid comments in the report as regards the impacts of climate change on weather-related disasters seem at odds with the direction of the science which is now established over several years. The clear scientific consensus is that the extremes of both wet and dry are being amplified such that we should expect more frequent severe floods and more severe and intense droughts alike.

In this it must also be said that Perrottet has a reputation as a climate change sceptic, if not a denier. He and his government may not be disposed to consider future climate change as being likely to exacerbate the flood problem. If so, he will be swimming against the tides of both science and public opinion.

Conclusion

There are many obstacles that the state government, charged with the implementation of the report’s recommendations, will have to face if the Inquiry’s report is to lead to substantial progress. We should anticipate a wild ride that will test the current coalition government led by Perrottet who has accepted all the 28 recommendations at least in principle. There is a caveat here, though: quite what ‘in principle’ means when only six of the 28 appear to be accepted in full is of some concern especially if the hesitation goes beyond the mere need for ‘further investigation’ (and there is much filling in of detail behind the Inquiry’s recommendations that is required). The Premier has spoken about the need for far-reaching reforms but some of the language being used might imply a reluctance to pursue it wholeheartedly. More clarity of governmental focus is needed here.

In the short term (which is all the government has before it faces the voters in March), the Premier will have to manage the politics of the disappointment being expressed over the fact that the report provides little detail on some significant issues (including how and on what timetable buybacks and land swaps will be managed and what the eligibility criteria will be). There is a sense that urgency is necessary to relieve the torment associated with living in unpleasant or unhealthy conditions, people camping throughout the winter in damaged houses or in tents and caravans, but the problems to be overcome are huge and aspects of the government’s responses are as yet unclear. Frustration and anger are rising, which carries obvious dangers for the government.

Moreover we have yet to see what the development industry will say about attempts to scale back or increase the restrictions on planned development on floodplains. Scaling back is essential if we are to avoid exacerbating an already serious problem, but it will not be welcomed by a powerful, well-connected interest with money, organisational clout and influence. Expect to hear more from Urban Task Force Australia and the Property Council of NSW.

The wild ride noted above will extend beyond the short term. If the report is to realise its full promise, there will need to be an on-going commitment by following governments to its proposals over a long period indeed for decades. The politics of achieving this will be formidable.

The Inquiry’s report is a useful start despite its recommendations lacking clarity in some cases and even though many details remain to be filled in. What is needed now, in addition to clarity and detail, is a well-resourced response by the state government. That the response will be very expensive and will need to be sustained for a long time cannot be doubted. In NSW we are at a critical moment in the management of one of the most significant natural hazards that we face.

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