By Leon Gettler
Special report: 21 January 2011 – With more extreme weather events expected, the Queensland flood crisis could represent the “new normal” that will challenge the property market. Experts have told The Fifth Estate that planning and infrastructure will have to change. Just another sign of what we can expect from a world transformed by global warming.
Geography and planning specialist Professor Brian Finlayson from the University of Melbourne says that the only way to tackle floods is to change land use and planning. Finlayson is an expert in flooding – he has records going back to the 19th Century.
Finalyson says there was nothing unsual about the recent floods, they were just part of the natural system. Indeed, Queensland records show similar events throughout its history.
“Brisbane has a map of the area that was flooded in 1896 and the area that was flooded in 1896 was the same as the area flooded in 1974 and very nearly the same as the area that flooded this year,’’ Finlayson says. “There’s no mystery here.
“You can find a very similar thing back in the 1950s. The difference between what’s happening now and what was happening in the 1950s is that a lot more value has been added to the flood plain.
“So where a lot of flood plains were largely empty back then, they are now covered with houses and shops and buildings and all sorts of things, so the damage bill goes up as people add more valuable things to the flood plain.
“All the areas that have been flooded in Queensland are known flood areas. The councils that run those areas would have maps showing what areas have been flooded in the past. There is nothing new in that. Emerald is the classic case. The council there knew exactly what area gets flooded and they allowed people to build houses on it. It’s a scandal.”
He says structural changes, like levees and putting more air space on dams, have limited effectiveness. Indeed, it can result in more damage.
“The worldwide message is that structural solutions to flooding that say we will stop the floods and keep them out, tend not to be very successful. What happens is that people feel safe, they add value to the property and the bill gets bigger with every flood,’’ he says.
“ My view about flooding is that the only sensible response is land use planning. Don’t build houses in flood plains, it’s as simple as that.”
But what would he propose where the houses have already been built?
“The first thing you do is you don’t add to it, that would be the first step,’’ he says. “In areas where the warning times are short, you could argue that the government could step into the market and start buying these properties.”
David Karoly from Melbourne University’s school of earth sciences says climate change has contributed to the disaster, although he stresses no one can quantify how much.
“It’s more than likely making a contribution and we can assess that by looking at the ocean temperatures around Australia which would cause more evaporation of moisture in the atmosphere,’’ Professor Karoly says.
David Jones, the head of climate monitoring and prediction at the Bureau of Meteorology says the La Nina event which brought the deadly floods will, at best, extend into the second quarter of this year. The worst case scenario, he says, is that it could last two to three years.
“We expect the La Nina to continue through at least to the end of summer and into autumn,’’ Dr Jones told The Fifth Estate. “It’s quite possibly the strongest La Nina since 1917. There is a lot of uncertainty once you start to look further out into the future but we do know it’s not unusual for a La Nina to last 12 months. But we have had a couple of major La Nina events which have last two to three years.”
He says we can expect more volatile climatic conditions. “We know as the planet gets hotter, droughts will be hotter, they will be drier and water that falls will evaporate more quickly. At the same time, we know that during wet periods, the atmosphere contains more water, there is a greater amount of evaporation over the ocean so that when it does rain, it will rain harder,” he says.
Jones says that while it is difficult to identify climate change behind specific events like a storm or heat wave, the floods in Queensland have the thumb print of global warming.
“In the current one, the two real signatures of climate change are the record ocean temperatures around Australia – oceans around Australia are the hottest they have been in history – and also over the last six months, we have had the highest humidity on record.
“From July to October, we had the highest ocean temperatures on record, the highest rainfall on record and we also had the highest humidity on record.”
That means we will see more climatic extremes. It will require urgent measures to protect infrastructure and property.
Andy Pitman, the co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales says there are no silver bullet solutions. “It’s absolutely case by case assessment of what you are vulnerable to and careful planning to minimise that vulnerability,’’ Professor Pitman says.
“You have different strategies to reduce vulnerability to bushfire, different strategies for flooding and with sea level rises, you need strategies to reduce vulnerability to flash flooding.
“If you build a house just above tide, you shouldn’t be particularly surprised if there is a storm surge. If you build a house on a flood plain, you shouldn’t be surprised if they flood. And if you build houses in the bush, you shouldn’t be surprised if they are vulnerable to bushfire.
“You don’t need a scientist to tell you these sorts of things, they are just common sense, but we seem to forget that nature isn’t as controllable as we would like it to think it is.”
He says that this explains why many of houses in Queensland were built in areas that had been flooded out in 1974. Urban planners and councils have come under fire for poor building approval decisions that created more damage in the crisis. Many of the apartments and houses built since 1974 in Brisbane, Rockhampton and Emerald were among the worst affected.
“We have just gone through a very long period of a relatively dry climate and we seem to have forgotten the lessons that occurred last time it flooded,’’ Pitman says.
“I am willing to bet that with the rebuilding of some of those settlements, we will build them less vulnerable to floods and more vulnerable to bushfires.”
The problem, he says, is that governments fail to develop sound strategies to deal with high weather variability and extremes. One example is the building of dams. The Wivenhoe dam in Queensland had a dual responsibility of maintaining a water supply and releasing water in time of flood.
“If you want a dam to reduce vulnerability against floods, you keep it empty. If you want to help protect against drought, you keep it full. Those two things are contradictory,’’ he says.
“Australia goes from floods to drought and the policy response to floods is to panic about flooding and forget about droughts and the policy response to drought is to forget about flooding and focus on drought.
“We need a sophisticated strategy that builds resilience into the system to withstand both floods and droughts.
“We don’t need the climate to become more extreme to highlight our vulnerability because we keep designing towns and cities that are vulnerable to climate change and vulnerable to climate volatility as well. Climate change is just an enhancement of the natural variability.”
Significantly, there has been criticism that there had been pressure from developers to build on flood prone land. In regional centres like Emerald, many affected homes were built in flood areas. As a result, they were not covered by flood insurance. An estimated 60 per cent of home owners are not covered by flood insurance and less than half of 45 insurance policies surveyed by consumer group Choice provided insurance for floods.
Greens leader Bob Brown told Crikey he wants the Federal Government to consider a national flood insurance scheme bankrolled by the mining super profits tax so that policyholders with genuine grievances would be properly covered.
Both Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and Prime Minister Julia Gillard have urged insurers to be more flexible when processing the thousands of claims for flood damage. The Federal Government is now looking at the creation of a common definition of floods in insurance policies because many insurers do not provide coverage for floods from rivers and creeks.
Significantly, the insurers have ducked for cover. IAG declined to speak to The Fifth Estate, saying all its managers were too busy, even for a five minute conversation. The Insurance Council of Australia promised The Fifth Estate that one of its specialists would call. Like the industry that on Friday declared it would not pay out on the Brisbane floods, because the damage was not directly from storms, the Insurance Council failed to deliver. There was no phone call.
Planning Institute of Australia president Neil Savery said a drastic planning overhaul was not necessary. Restricting access to flood plains was impractical and could also undermine property rights.
“We historically located our trading centres which are now our cities on what were ports and rivers so inevitably they are located in flood plain areas,’’ Savery says. “We are already caught in a situation where development has occurred in areas that we know are going to be subject to future natural hazards.
“We are not just talking about floods. We are also talking about cyclones and bushfires.
“Even if we were to say no more development in flood plains now, much of the area that has been affected has been developed for many years. What we have to look at is how we can mitigate through improved flood levees and adaptation of buildings so if floods do occur , you build or plan for that event so that part of the building can be flooded without the serious side effects that we have seen on this occasion.
“Clearly, the preferable position would be to limit development within a flood plain but some of those developments rely on the proximity to certain infrastructure and services and you also have to deal with the issue of property rights. If someone has freehold tenure on land for the purpose of development, then they have inherent rights subject to development approval that they would want to exercise.”
What’s needed, he says, is for mapping of vulnerable areas. The planning codes could then be tweaked to manage proposed developments. “You don’t have to make radical changes to planning laws, it’s how you apply them,’’ he says.
Savery says he expects councils will be more rigorous after the floods.
Jamie Shelton, the president of Consult Australia (formerly known as the Association of Consulting Engineers) says engineers will pick up a lot from the experience. They will have to – one of the big lessons from the floods is that infrastructure has to be more resilient.
“What may well come out of this is a better understanding of what climate change will look like in the future,’’ Shelton says. “There will be questions about the vulnerability of infrastructure and I’m talking about the full gamut – roads, rail, transport, power supply, water sewerage, drainage and communication systems.
“There is a great opportunity for us all to learn within engineering about the design of our infrastructure system. We need to start thinking about the risks that events like this pose to our infrastructure and if we understand these risks, we can start to think about how we can adapt to this change. And if we are going to live in a world where these sorts of weather events become more common, where part of Australia may be flooding and in other parts, it may be the opposite, then we need to start planning now.”
One of the key issues, he says, is that a significant part of the Australian population lives in flood prone zones. Making houses flood proof is impractical, he says. It is better to focus on the infrastructure.
“Even if you build buildings higher, a lot of the infrastructure in those areas serving those houses is at risk,” Shelton says.
One way, he suggests, is to replace bitumen roads with concrete which is less susceptible to flooding. But he concedes that will be a major headache for governments because it will be expensive.
Shelton says creating flood proof infrastructure systems is not the answer. “We have seen that tested to the absolute extreme and the floods we have had were not much worse than when it was built so you have to question the idea of man trying to hold back mother nature.
“To me, that raises a question of land use. If certain areas are going to be susceptible to extreme rain falls, then it’s not right to allow people to live there.”
Certainly, he like so many would agree that the judicial inquiry into the south east Queensland flood disaster will have its work cut out. With so many different proposals and positions, the inquiry will have come up with some answers. Already, Queensland Premier Bligh has pledged that homes in her state will not be rebuilt in areas that could flood again. Just where they can be relocated remains to be seen.
And with the rest of the country rocked by extreme climatic variability, the findings are likely to be picked up by other agencies around Australia. If that happens, the outcome might be critical for the property sector which will be at the coal face of change.
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