By Eli Gescheit
In response to the recent flooding that has transpired in Queensland, I decided to undertake some research on how the planning system addresses flood management. Viewing the horrific images showing the damage caused by the severe floods can bring anyone to have concern for those affected.
In the present article I would like to provide information gathered from a range of sources, while also attempting to understand how there was a lack of planning systems in place to manage the disaster. Furthermore as an urban planner, I would like to make suggestions to reduce the scale and impacts of such a catastrophic event.
The La Niña effect
Before I proceed, we must first understand what caused these floods. There is compelling evidence which suggests the floods were due to extreme weather conditions attributed to a La Niña effect. I am no weather expert and I refuse to believe the weather predictions presented in the news. However, in one of my university classes we learnt about the effects of a La Nina climate pattern.
Essentially, there are cold and warm water systems connecting between the South American basin and the Australian east coast. This influences the weather patterns which results in dry weather conditions in South America causing wet weather on Australia’s’ east coast. As Australia is now experiencing the La Niña weather effect, extreme weather conditions on the east coast are prevalent, and the floods are attributed to this.
For the records of Australian rainfall patterns during La Niña events click here.
The La Niña effect coupled with the global warming phenomenon, amplified the effect of the floods. I am renowned to be an optimist in most situations, however the influence of global warming is only increasing the number of severe weather events. Subsequently, preventative measures should anticipate more intense flooding in the future. Let’s hope in the distant future…
According to the Bureau of Meteorology the La Niña effect is set to continue until March and they predict “the national outlook for the January to March period favours wetter conditions in the eastern half of New South Wales, south-eastern Queensland and Western Australia”.
Limitations for planners
A survey conducted by Grech and Bewsher in 2007 focused on the familiarity of urban planners with the 2005 NSW Flood Policy and Floodplain Development Manual. This guideline encourages measures to reduce flood impacts and introduces a risk management process for determining proposals.
57% of respondents were unaware of this policy. Furthermore, they found there was an evident “lack of understanding of flood risk management within town planning education in NSW”. This is primarily due to the engineering driven aspect of the process.
Grech and Bewsher (2009) agree that “various studies have demonstrated that manner in which different types of land uses are distributed within a floodplain and redevelopment of flood affected older urban areas in a more flood tolerant manner can significantly minimise flood damages in some cases. However there remains a significant reluctance for the town planning profession to engage in the floodplain risk management process”
Michael Pascoe from the Sydney Morning Herald wrote; “there’s nothing new about the Brisbane ‘flood map’- it existed before the 1974 flood but only came to light in that tragedy’s aftermath as evidence of town planning going hopelessly wrong”.
Responding to rising sea levels
Climate change is influencing legislation and the NSW Department of Planning released a Sea Level Rise Policy Statement in October 2009 which offers an approach for stakeholders including Councils, urban planners and developers when dealing with sites that could be affected by rising sea levels. Some of the objectives of this policy include;
- To minimise the exposure to coastal risks from proposed development in coastal areas
- Advise the public of coastal risks
- Reduce the coastal risks caused by development
The policy also aims to support appropriate coastal development, provide information rising sea level issues, and support communities during emergencies.
Existing infrastructure provided relief
Following the aftermath of the flooding in Brisbane, the waters are receding, we need to understand how the infrastructure coped with the floods. It appears the Wivenhoe Dam played a central role in managing the water flow. The dam was built in 1984, ten years after the 1974 floods, to reduce future flood impacts.
Campbell Newman, Brisbane City Mayor, praised the dam by suggesting “if not for the Wivenhoe, we would have faced flooding the likes of which we cannot comprehend”. Also in relation to the effectiveness of the dam, Dan Spiller, Director of SEQ Water Grid Manager, praised the dam for slowing down the flood impact, although “the inundation to the catchment area was such that nothing was going to prevent a severe flood”. Seemingly the dam proved to be successful to an extent, even though the scale of such a flood was unpredictable.
Learning from past experience
Thankfully the predicted flood levels in Brisbane did not reach those from 1974, although the areas previously flooded were now flooded again and there was extensive damage. There is no doubt Brisbane has changed since 1974 as the population has increased and more buildings have been built. Nevertheless, the correct measures to alleviate flood impacts were obviously not undertaken.
Drawing from past experience can be beneficial for the rebuilding phase with a focus on ensuring new buildings are designed to reduce the impacts of natural disasters. In the International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, Carolyn Hayles (2010) examines the decision making in post disaster housing reconstruction. ”Mitigation of natural disaster within the context of sustainability requires changes and adjustments in the ways human settlements are planned, built and managed.” Climate change should also be considered and it should generate a higher standard of housing.
Following the devastating 2009 Victorian bushfires there was a inquiry which made recommendations. Similarly with these floods an inquiry was established to investigate the impacts of the flood, including planning matters. As expected, “The inquiry will also investigate land use planning and development in flood-prone areas and the performance of private insurers in fulfilling claims” (Brisbane Times).
The role of the inquiry should develop practical measures to ensure such devastation is reduced in the future. The blame game will probably last for a while, however the Queensland citizens are perhaps more concerned with rebuilding their lives and making sure they are ready for next time this such a natural disaster occurs.
A study featured in the International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, conducted by Aleksandra Kazmierczak and Erik Bichard (2010) analysed householder’s perceptions of climate change in the UK. In particular, whether they were willing to make improvements to their homes to mitigate flooding.
Their findings revealed that around two thirds of respondents agreed that it was homeowners responsibility to protect their homes from flooding. However, the willingness to take measures to protect their homes was low, as half did not feel it was necessary.
The study concluded; “There is a need for action to increase the motivation to invest in property-level flood measures among house owners, which should include awareness raising actions, subsidies and incentives promoting sustainable behaviour.”
Following the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami that struck in 2004, governments around the world resolved to develop higher quality prediction technology to better warn citizens. As mentioned earlier, extreme weather conditions can be unavoidable as levies, dams and other hazard reduction measures are not always effective.
In my opinion such initiatives are surely not a waste of time and resources if they are going to reduce the overall impact and minimise casualties. With the emergence of global warming, weather conditions are typically intensifying. Therefore technological advances in weather forecasting will assist in prevention.
Anyone who has watched the Twister movie, will appreciate the efforts by scientists to capture data for prediction of natural disasters. The movie presented a story of tornado-chasers whose objective was to release mini balls into tornadoes which were then recorded to demonstrate the nature of these vicious weather elements.
Similarly, with these recent floods in Queensland, data collection is imperative to assist with predicting future floods.
Brisbane City Council offers a FloodWise Property Report that allows owners to find out if their property is susceptible to flooding. A clause which wipes Council’s responsibility states; “Please note, low risk does not mean no risk; all properties can flood in extreme weather conditions”.
So this report is fairly useless. Weather patterns such as the intensity as this recent one, are unpredictable. Can there be accurate reports to predict flooding? Why bother issue such a report if the advice is not accurate?
How can planners get involved?
The Planning Institute of Australia’s (PIA) national president, Neil Savery sent an email on Thursday 13 January in response to the natural disaster in Queensland. He appealed to the institute’s members to offer their professional assistance during the difficult rebuilding stage. PIA has established a register for volunteers which is accessible here. There is also a dedicated page on their website for local and international resources on post-disaster planning available here.
I highly commend PIA on this significant initiative which exemplifies the Aussie spirit to lend a hand in times of need.
Planning for the future
Owners of properties affected by flood-prone areas are not interested in “we should have…”, they want pre-emptive measures taken to ensure property destruction and loss of life is minimised. Indeed they decide their own destinies and have chosen to live in these high-risk areas. They place their lives in danger just like the residents in Victoria who lived bushfire prone areas, who were affected by the tragic bushfires in 2009.
The rebuilding phase will be tough, lives will have to be rebuilt, and the economy will have to be resurrected. Nevertheless, as Australians we are resilient to natural disasters, terrorism and the Global Financial Crisis. I am an optimist and I believe we can be better prepared next time. The planning profession has some serious consideration to do, in particular by focusing on my recommendations for planning for future floods;
- Planners need to be more knowledgeable with flood prevention guidelines and collaborate effectively with other relevant stakeholders to mitigate impacts.
- Accurate prediction techniques and warning systems need to be established.
- Educational programs and incentives for homeowners to refurbish their homes using flood protection measures.
- Stricter building guidelines for new homes.
- More awareness and dialogue in the industry on flood issues
- Relevant university degrees contain natural hazard prevention subjects.
Image Source: catpolitics.blogspot.com/