ANALYSIS: The Queensland/NSW floods have been declared a national emergency and a new Climate Council report A Supercharged Climate: Rain bombs, flash flooding and destruction has outlined the magnitude of the disaster pressure is mounting on governments and developers to move away from high-climate-risk areas and towards adaptation and resilience.
The recent International Panel on Climate Change report has revealed findings far worse than predicted. Climate change is intensifying extreme rainfall, along with a swathe of other natural disasters. The frequency of these events is likely to almost double with each degree of further global warming.
The Climate Council report has found that within three days, the Brisbane River below Wivenhoe received 1450 billion litres of water – equivalent to the water in three Sydney Harbours, and 80 per cent of Brisbane’s annual rainfall fell in the city over three days, which is more rain than London receives over an entire year.
The NSW State Emergency Service conducted a record 932 rescues within 24 hours (28 Feb-1 March 2022).
Insured losses from the floods are currently on track to reach $2 billion, with estimated current cost of insurance claims at $1.45 billion (as of 8 March 2022).
As we published in a recent article, in flood-affected areas insurance premiums can range from $30,000 to more than $150,000 a year, and the Climate Council estimates that home insurance policies could become “effectively unaffordable” for one in 19 Australian homes by 2030.
In the aftermath of the northern NSW and southern QLD floods and the damage that ensued, people are picking up the pieces of their homes and businesses that are literally scattered across the streets and environment. Many are dealing with destroyed or damaged buildings, risk of disease from contaminated floodwaters, and facing down the costly barrel of rebuilding their lives.
The Committee for Sydney released a statement 10 March calling for upgrades to evacuation infrastructure, restriction of future developments in the floodplain in areas of high risk, voluntary buybacks, a long-term regional land use strategy, and a taskforce to investigate the rising costs of flood insurance on the floodplain.
But on Tuesday, minister for Western Sydney Stuart Ayres shot down calls to relocate people from floodplains, arguing that residents were already aware of the risk they took by choosing to live in a flood-prone area.
He told a budget estimates hearing it was “a farcical proposition” to buy out homes in flood-affected areas, saying that it would be better to mitigate flooding through data mapping and modelling, evacuation routes and dams.
But the thing is, people already know the risks, and are still choosing (through financial necessity or ignorance, it remains to be known) to develop or live within high-risk areas.
Karl Mallon is the chief executive officer at Climate Valuation. The company analyses extreme event risk at an address level based on hazards that may be relevant, like flooding, coastal inundation, and forest fire, and looks at resilience of a property and its ability to withstand hazards, and whether climate change may make those risks worsen over time.
Mr Mallon told The Fifth Estate that already the data on at-risk areas is out there, there is a gap between knowledge and action.
“No one truly knows why, but there is a gap. After the last Brisbane floods, people didn’t want to live in the flood area anymore, so they sold.
“But plenty of people still took it as an opportunity to enter the property market. They might be regretting that now, but the question is: why would we let people move into properties without upgrading them to be resilient? They might want a cheap property, or they don’t realise how costly and unavailable insurance is, or the insurance premium has increased since they’ve moved in,” he said.
The good thing is that some home buyers are apparently starting to factor climate change into their buying behaviour, and question whether purchasing homes in the disaster zone is a good decision. Mr Mallon said that it is mostly in the younger demographic.
“We don’t think it’s a one in one thousand year flood any more, we think it will happen more frequently – 350,000 properties around Australia are identified as high risk,” he said.
“What’s interesting is people are asking these questions now, but they didn’t before.
Even three months ago, people never spoke about it,” ? Brett Waller, a real estate agent at Castlemaine Property Group, told The Fifth Estate.
In October of 2012 then water minister Peter Walsh announced $250,000 to improve flood intelligence for Castlemaine, Campbells Creek and Chewton. The works included drainage works to reduce risk of stormwater flooding, construction of levees, and waterway improvement works downstream.
But people are asking the question: why are developers and homeowners permitted to build in the floodpath in the first place? And why is more resilience and adaptation not being done to protect communities?
“We can all be optimistic about whether we’ll be impacted by risk, and we have floodplain risk practices in Australia and land risk policies on where they can build. But it’s about whether more policies should be brought in to strengthen that,” said Andrew Gissing, general manager of resilience at Risk Frontiers, which models natural hazard catastrophe risk.
“The government won’t be able to buy back all the flooded properties, it’s not cost effective.”
Walled properties, floodgates, brick houses with flood proofing, concrete or tiles, municipal works like levees – these are all resilience adaptations that will go a long way in protecting people and their homes, both Mr Mallon and Mr Gissing agree.
“The good news is there’s a lot we can do about it. Forewarned is forearmed,” Mr Mallon says.
“There’s only a small number of communities where that level of intervention will not work. In Lismore once the water reached the second floor, we question whether those communities are viable in the long term. Cities like Grantham were relocated en masse, that’s a success story and an example of an intact community staying together and relocated. Maybe that’s a conversation we need to have.”
Mallon said: “There is leadership in the private sector on these issues, but unfortunately that’s covering for a lack of leadership in the government.
“They’re dishing out emergency cash but we know it makes more sense to prepare for events rather than mop up after them. Stopping smoking cigarettes is cheaper than chemotherapy. Prevention is more cost effective than consequences. I think the government is abrogating responsibility if it’s not going to engage in climate adaptation. They set the planning codes but they don’t take responsibility, that’s ludicrous.”
Communities are worried that properties will be devalued if legislation comes in, Mallon said. But he said these are the victims of climate change and there should be more support and solutions to avoid financial loss to people in high risk areas.
“We need to stop building in these areas. Developers can buy cheap land, pop up a property and sell it on, and they’re long gone by the time property is hit by flood.
“So there’s a disconnect between who’s getting the money and who’s suffering the risk.”
What does it mean to live in the face of climate change? It means that in the face of the consequences of our own mistakes, and humanity needs to adapt in order to survive.
“We have a database of the flood risks to every house in Australia. How many times do we watch disasters before we rebuild houses to be ready for climate change?”