Flood wall in Austria

NSW/QLD FLOODS: When it comes to the recent floods, the inevitable question about how to protect property emerges. Building levees or seawalls sounds like an intuitive answer.

We touched on this in our recent article out how to improve property resilience against floods, with solutions including lifting the building above the path of rising floodwaters, and using more flood resilient materials such as concrete or brick.

But the debate around floodgates, levees and seawalls is much larger and more complex that erecting a barrier for self protection. 

Part of the problem is a lack of funding. 

Physical flood barriers are a very important way to mitigate flood risk, and one that many local governments are crying out for. While some have undertaken works, there are many more which would like more support to implement these strategies. 

“Measures such as levees and seawalls are hard engineering structures that can prevent flooding and embed resilience  and will be cheaper in the long run, as it breaks the cycle of build/break/repair,” according to Dr Tayanah O’Donnell. 

O’Donnell is a partner in Deloitte’s risk advisory, climate and sustainability team. She is a lawyer with a PhD in climate change adaptation and coastal governance, focused on climate and sustainability policy and program transformation. 

They are physical barriers designed to prevent flood damage to a building or environment, “often thought of as useful adaptation measures when it comes to flood preparedness.” 

But councils are saying that this infrastructure is not within their reach. Not enough money has been allocated for disaster mitigation efforts, which is a major roadblock for the rollout of disaster mitigation strategies. 

“Communities need our governments, including local governments, to invest more in resilience and mitigation measures so communities in Queensland, NSW and elsewhere don’t have to live in fear,” Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) president and City of Sydney councillor Linda Scott said in a written statement to The Fifth Estate

ALGA is the national voice of local government, representing 537 councils across the country.

“Lismore’s CBD levee, for example, overflowed in the February floods, and will need to be enlarged to prevent the devastation of future floods as a result of our changing climate.

“Local governments have identified projects in every corner of the nation that would mitigate the impacts of future natural disasters.”

One of these projects is a proposal to build flood mitigation works in Bundaberg

In the wake of the devastation suffered by communities across Queensland and NSW, the community has slammed the federal government for allocating just $50 million a year on flood preparedness projects, despite having more than $4 billion available in the national Emergency Relief Fund. 

The Bundaberg project alone needs an additional $42 million to go ahead – you do the maths. 

Can flood barriers do more harm than good?

But climate adaptation experts are saying that some flood barriers may sometimes do more harm than good.

These physical barriers “can often play a positive role, however care must be taken with their design and implementation because a hard structure in one place can exacerbate flood damage in an adjacent place, where that adjacent place does not have a flood protection measure,” O’Donnell says. 

In other words, if you sit down in a bathtub the water will rise further around you. If you install a flood barrier it will cause the water to rise up higher around you and be pushed elsewhere, possibly causing more damage to other areas. 

Also, flood barriers only function under “assumptions of weather systems” that are now being “significantly altered” by climate change. 

“Some of these methods are not always well-equipped to cope from the perspective of built environment assets. Because the flood waters may be so deep and so fast that adaptation options are far more limited.”

In other words, while levees, flood gates and seawalls are an effective adaptation measure, they need to be built fit-for-purpose for the future (for “anticipated climate scenario proposition” O’Donnell says). 

She claims that flood barriers are “a bandaid solution”, that taking small adaptation methods may distract from the huge scale of the climate crisis that Australians are faced with. 

“Small adaptation measures may create situations of false security, especially in light of the enormity of the now locked-in climatic changes we will see in our climate systems over the coming years and decades.” 

But it’s no question that adaptation measures need to be taken. 

“Investing in flood mitigation is public money well spent,” Cr Scott said. “Lismore’s levee kept the city dry through three flood events before this flood, paying for its construction costs twice over.”  

Regulations governing home and building development in areas at risk of natural disasters, such as cyclones, are in place in parts of QLD, Northern Territory, NSW and Western Australia. But flood-risk land is often released for development, without flood-resilient regulations in place for building design. 

“Stopping smoking cigarettes is cheaper than chemotherapy. Prevention is more cost effective than consequences,” explained climate risk and adaptation specialist Karl Mallon, director at Climate Risk Engines, Climate Valuation and XDI. 

“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,” said Mallon. 

“We are ricocheting from complex disaster to complex disaster,” said Dr O’Donnell. “We aren’t living in unprecedented times anymore. These events have been predicted and foreseen for decades. We’re seeing a one in 100 year event happening every few years. 

“That has significant economic cost, cultural trauma and loss, especially when thinking about Indigenous communities. You can’t put a monetary figure on the loss of Country and that rolling trauma that we have lived through now for several years, without time to take a breath and pause and process that trauma.” 

Dr O’Donnell emphasises that putting climate adaptations in place is a difficult discussion to have from a planning perspective when reconciling current opinions with future needs. 

“Tradeoffs are made, no matter what decisions are made. These decisions are difficult and complex. Different entities in a community have different needs and different desires when it comes to the places they live and work in.”

It is especially complex because she says that developments have in the past been approved in high risk locations, where they would not now. 

The adaptation wheels are turning, but slowly

O’Donnell recently wrote that her PhD research found that “some elected councillors are willing to override long-range climate change planning so as to protect voters’ private property”.

At the end of the day, she says that climate change adaptation needs to be done in a way that minimises risk in the long-term. And we are starting to see the wheels slowly turn.  

“From both the state and federal government there is a range of programs starting to emerge and be implemented around adaptation and disaster resilience. That’s positive because pre-2019 there was a lack of coordination and longer term thinking about preparing a country like Australia for increasing disaster risk. Perhaps since the fires we’re now seeing a much more coordinated effort around leadership that is desperately needed.” 

Programs like the Preparing Australia program sit within a suite of policies around climate adaptation. The program will invest $600 million toward households and communities to ensure they are better prepared for future disasters. 

“When we think about what is the role of the elected leaders – to invest in climate mitigation and adaptation in a way that reduces emissions and encourages rapid transformation – how can we imbed good adaptive practice and capacity now, so that when the next event happens we’re not paying good taxpayer money to recover something we knew was coming in the first place?” she asks. 

And what other options do we have, if not adaptation? Relocation, or “managed retreat”, may be the unwanted ultimate outcome of the climate crisis. 

The town of Grantham in Queensland was relocated as a whole in a land swap in February 2020. Almost 90 families were relocated together, the community staying intact. 

But “where there’s already substantial infrastructure and built environment, it’s really hard to unwind that.”

“Asking people who have financial or cultural attachments to places to move away from those places is not an easy question. It is complex and sensitive. But we need to have that hard conversation,” explained Dr O’Donnell. 

“Maybe that’s a conversation we need to have,” Mallon agrees. “But the finances are the question.” 

The “million dollar question”, says O’Donnell, is who will pay for it?

Again, that is the issue that faces both flood adaptation works and community relocation. 

But O’Donnell reminds us that the government is funded by the taxpayer – and therefore the government is beholden to the taxpayer. 

In the US, there have been government funded compensational buyer schemes, spurred on by modelling and assessments that revealed it will cost five times that of the billion dollar buyout cost to try and protect people in high risk areas. The town of Valmeyer in Illinois relocated decades ago after devastating floods. It was touted as a “radical” decision. Until it was unavoidable. 

“It’s an economic decision. The cost to the taxpayer is less in the long-run,” commented O’Donnell. 

But in a country like Australia, that conversation may be another hard one to have – both culturally, and due to the harsh and extreme natural environment that we have gotten used to living in. 

“There is a view here that we as individuals are resilient and we just get on with it.”

“So much of the population is living in high risk areas, so it’s hard to draw a line around [where communities adapt or relocate] and that’s why reducing emissions and embedding strong adaptation measures that account for risk in ten years time is worth the investment.” 

“Every local government in the nation is advocating for whoever forms the next Commonwealth Government to urgently invest $200 million per annum for four years to protect against future natural disasters,” said Cr Scott of ALGA. 

 “All federal MPs and candidates owe it to our communities – particularly those that are vulnerable to fires and floods – to commit to investing in infrastructure that will protect us from increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters.”

O’Donnell says that the government has “ failed in many many ways”.

But “especially now, in the midst of a significant and traumatic event, it’s important that we recognise the work they have done as a positive thing, and encourage the government to continue to invest and demonstrate leadership in thoughtful policy and design.” 

“All of that said, there is a lot more that we need to do.”

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