The Guardian • Issue #1998

The floods are rising and so are we

Photo: Jala

While thousands of people across South-East Queensland and northern New South Wales have been left devastated by the unanticipated extreme flooding event, which has destroyed countless homes and livelihoods, the appalling government and council responses have left locals abandoned and furious. Additionally, it has brought into the limelight poor city planning and council corruption with new developments in Brisbane, just a decade after the last major Brisbane floods. It also reveals the lack of funding for adaptation policies in Australia, which were recommended in the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This report details how poorer communities are disproportionately affected, and recommends an inclusive policy of equity and justice.


Residents in Lismore have been shocked to witness the Australian Defence Force (ADF) taking advantage of the disaster by setting up cameras and lighting for photo and filming opportunities while people are in desperate need of evacuation, left abandoned on their rooftops. Everyday citizens and small businesses have volunteered, mobilised, organised, fed, provided clean water, funded, and put themselves in danger to rescue and support flood victims with minimal to no assistance from government bodies. At least seventeen people have died in these floods, and the death toll continues to rise as bodies are recovered, and inefficient recovery systems fail to provide urgent services.

While private helicopter services in the region have provided fourteen helicopters in the air at an average of seven hours per day, the ADF has provided just two helicopters for just one hour per day. Volunteer pilots have been frustrated at the ADF response, disappointed about having to rely on community volunteering – people who are not getting paid. At least 200 rescue missions for 5000 affected people, 20 tonnes of essential goods, including food and medicine, have been provided by these volunteers with base income provided by a community crowdfunding campaign. The ADF claims that there were up to four helicopters in the air at a time with 436 personnel cleaning up in Lismore. Regardless, this is still minimal in comparison to the private helicopter missions.


Greens Councillor for the Gabba, Jonathan Sri, has analysed the situation in his ward which has been highly affected, explaining how big developers are allowed a great deal of leeway by council authorities by not having to pay for local infrastructure such as drainage and electricity, when putting up huge apartment complexes. On top of this, tenants are given false reassurances that the basements of these apartments, where their cars and extra furniture are kept, would be unlikely to flood, as this would devalue the apartments.

The reality has been that many tenants in these apartments have lost their cars and stored items, and people with disabilities have been unable to leave their apartments due to elevators being turned off without notification. Most of the people living in these built-up areas are renting from landlord investors who take little to no responsibility for the poorly designed homes which are vulnerable to flooding, blaming the tenant for “taking a risk” for living in a flood zone. As Sri examines, it is not the tenant who should be penalised for taking a risk but the investors who have a responsibility to provide a home that is fit to live in.


During the 2011 Brisbane floods, thousands of people mobilised to help their fellow citizens who had been severely affected. At times this was disorganised and led to some dangerous situations, or unhappy flood victims, as helpers sometimes over-confidently threw out items of value to the owners. However, this enormous “Mud Army” was essential in providing help for many affected people in need.

In this year’s unprecedented floods, the Brisbane City Council (BCC) took a leading role in mobilising volunteers by setting up registration systems to avoid these problems. However, the lack of organisation from the BCC meant that thousands of volunteers were not called upon until too late and were poorly distributed. Those who volunteered on Sunday 6th March were asked to stay home, and many people who would have been assisted without a central organisation like in the previous floods, were left without volunteer helpers. As part of climate change adaptation policies recommended by the IPCC, it is crucial to develop disaster response systems. As climate change is now having devastating effects on coastal cities, it is essential that these recommendations be addressed.


Dr Johanna Nalau, one of the 270 lead authors on the recent IPCC report, recently spoke on Brisbane’s community radio, 4ZZZ, about the clear impacts of climate change which are happening now, including the ongoing flood disaster. The report is a synthesis of over 34,000 papers that have been cited to make the information more accessible for policymakers. Chapter 11 of the report focuses on Australia and New Zealand, which is reliant on its coastal cities that are disproportionately affected. Extreme storms, more intense than ever before, and double the frequency of flooding due to rising sea levels, can be expected for coastal cities. While this is indeed concerning, Nalau was adamant that this would not have to be all doom and gloom with adequate adaptation policies put in place.

Policy makers and leaders need to understand that climate impacts are not something of the future, but something happening now. While funding should still be put into reducing global emissions, preparation for extreme events due to climate change is pivotal to reducing the impact of inevitable disasters. These adaptations include, but are not limited to, flood protection, safety nets, relocation systems, early warning systems, community awareness, creating more urban parks and green spaces, and increasing biodiversity in urban areas. This will not only prevent the death and destruction that comes with these disasters but also provide a more pleasant environment for all.


Unfortunately, policymakers in Australia are yet to implement adaptation policies and continue to spout phrases such as Prime Minister Scott Morrison referring to the floods as a “natural disaster.” Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton, set up a GoFundMe campaign for the floods, a clear election strategy, without considering how the people would be infuriated with his support of the recently founded military pact, AUKUS, which could cost Australia as much as $171 bil for nuclear submarines in Australia, a country that signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Meanwhile, he expects citizens to put their hard-earned dollars towards a clear national crisis, without serious support from the federal government. People in Australia should not be fooled by this clear hypocrisy.


Cities in China that are more prone to flooding have implemented innovative strategies to tackle climate change. Denmark has praised this huge project and implemented this into their own prevention strategies. Authorities in cities such as Pingxiang have built tunnels to divert water into other waterways, and upgraded sewer systems, filtration pools, wetlands and public spaces which absorb water. Pump stations have been built to enhance drainage capacity, and there has even been a type of brick developed that absorbs water like a sponge. These measures have created opportunities for new business and have spared the damage of urban flooding in more vulnerable districts.


Although the Australian government has not shown this level of commitment, the citizens indeed have. The Mud Army is one clear example of this. Additionally, small businesses have offered free meals, free use of electricity for charging phones or whatever necessary. Citizens have offered free fuel, clean water, dropping off waste bins, showers, carpool services and free lifts to wherever flood victims needed to go, and much more. This sense of community and comradery deserves to be mobilised by efficient and effective systems. The people of Australia should fight for better systems of governance, for climate adaptation policies and for justice for victims of this disaster and further impacts of climate change.

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