By Eli Gescheit
15 April 2011 – In the wake of the recent floods in Queensland, I undertook some research on how the planning system addresses flood management situations. Viewing the horrific images showing the damage caused by the severe floods can bring anyone to have concern for those affected.

The La Niña effect
It is useful to understand what causes these types of floods. There is compelling evidence which suggests the floods were the result of extreme weather conditions attributed to a La Niña effect. This arises where a cold and warm water system connects the South American basin and the Australian east coast. This influences the weather patterns which results in dry weather conditions in South America causing extreme wet weather on Australia’s east coast. As Australia is now experiencing the La Niña weather effect, extreme prevailing conditions on the east coast are causing weather patterns which have resulted in the floods being currently experienced.
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. These guidelines encourage measures to reduce flood impacts and introduces a risk management process for determining proposals.

Fifty seven per cent 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.

In 2009, Grech and Bewsher stated that “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 recently 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”.
Thus planners are limited by their knowledge of flood management skills.
Learning from past experience

Drawing from past experience can benefit the rebuilding phase with a focus on ensuring new buildings are designed to reduce the impacts of natural disasters.
An inquiry has been established to investigate the impacts of the floods, including matters relating to planning and development issues in flood-prone areas.

The role of the inquiry will hopefully develop practical measures to ensure such devastation is reduced in the future.
A study featured in the International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, conducted by Aleksandra Kazmierczak and Erik Bichard (2010) analysed householders’ 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 who were responsible to protect their homes from flooding. However, the willingness to take measures to protect their homes was low, and 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.”

Planning for the future
Owners of properties affected in flood-prone areas are not interested in the “we should have” mentality; they want pre-emptive measures taken to ensure property destruction and loss of life is minimised. Indeed they decided their own destinies by choosing to live in these high-risk areas.

They placed their lives in danger just like people who live in bushfire-prone areas.

The rebuilding phase in the affected areas will be very hard; lives will have to be rebuilt, and the economy will have to be resurrected. The blame game will probably last for a while, however the Queenslanders are perhaps more concerned with rebuilding their lives and making sure they are ready for next time such a natural disaster occurs.

Nevertheless, as Australians, we are resilient to natural disasters, terrorism and the Global Financial Crisis. I am an optimist and believe we can be better prepared next time. The planning profession has some serious thinking to do, and I have offered some 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 flood 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 to withstand the results of climate change.
  • More awareness and dialogue in the industry on flood issues.
  • Relevant university courses to educate on natural hazard prevention.

Eli Gescheit is duty planner at Waverley Council and director of The Planning Boardroom

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