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Queensland floods: Living on the floodplain « Previous | |Next »
January 11, 2011

The floods that have swept through Emerald, Rockhampton, Toowoomba, the Lockyer Valley region, Ipswich and now Brisbane have seen 38 regions across Queensland being declared a natural disaster area. The floods are the result from a switch from El Niño to La Niña.

This switch is one reason why Australia has these big swings in climate from dry to wet and back again. What causes the switch is not known, but it is thought to arise from the complex interaction of ocean and atmospheric circulations.

MaccollZRockhampton.jpg Rob Maccoll, Rockhampton in flood from the air, Courier-Mail, 2011

Glancing through the gallery of readers photos at the Australian indicates that the multi-billion damage caused by this flood event in Queensland is largely due to more and more people living in flood plains and farming in areas that historically have flooded.

Whitelightbringer's footage of East Creek near Chalk Drive / Chalk Lane rising and washing away lots of cars during Flash Flood in Toowoomba on Monday 10 January 2011.

So the finger can be pointed at the people who made the zoning decisions. They should not be left off the hook by the talk about building dams to capture the water flows so their storages can be used for future wealth creation by Big Ag. It's what the Nationals and their court jester( Barnaby Joyce) mean by humans taming nature.

The real problems of climate change are still ahead---the scenario for southern Australia is for warmer temperatures and less rainfall, except for north-west Australia. It is still unclear under the switch from El Niño to La Niña and back again will be effected by climate change. Will the cycle become more frequent and more intense?

The Brisbane River has already broken its banks in parts of the city and evacuations are underway in some suburbs. The water has entirely engulfed the lower promenade at Eagle Street Pier, in the city’s entertainment precinct, flooding dozens of restaurants and threatening many more. The CBD was a virtual ghost town this morning.The power is being cut in the CBD.

This is a map of the flood modelling on the Brisbane City Council website. At this stage the flood has killed 14, while around 74 are missing. Unfortunately, more are expected.

If predictions are right, the floods starting to affect Brisbane could be worse than the 1974 floods, given the wall of water bearing down on Brisbane. The Brisbane River hasn't peaked--there's all that water still to come down from the Lockyer Valley (tomorrow morning?); water is being released from the Wivenhoe Daminto the Brisbane River and the king tides peak on Friday.

Almost 20,000 homes in Brisbane will be flooded by early tomorrow morning when the surging waters are expected to reach around 5.5 metres, which is just higher than the '74 flood. (The Brisbane River peaked this morning at 4.46 metres, more than a metre below the predicted peak of 5.5 metres.)

WinbourneTBrisbaneRiver .jpg Tim Wimborne, Brisbane River, Reuters, 2011

So why allow development in known flood prone areas? What happened to the investment in flood control infrastructure when the need was apparent in the lower lying suburbs of Brisbane? After all, Brisbane is a city built in a mangrove swamp on a floodplain, and it was flooded in 1974.

The torrential rain from the concentrated storm fell on already saturated ground in the region west of Brisbane. With nowhere to go, the water formed intense flash floods that ripped through the Lockyer Valley. The water then drains east, pushing several rivers past major flood stage, and eventually ends up in the sea.

So many people in Brisbane are living on a flood plain without flood insurance or proper development controls in low lying areas. They are sitting ducks. How did this happen? This looks to be a failure of local and state government.

Hedley Thomas in Alarming report on Brisbane River risks covered up in The Australian informs us of what happened in Brisbane with development in low lying areas. He says:

A secret report by scientific and engineering experts warned of significantly greater risks of vast destruction from Brisbane River flooding - and raised grave concerns with the Queensland government and the city's council a decade ago.But the recommendations in the report for radical changes in planning strategy, emergency plans and transparency about the true flood levels for Brisbane were rejected and the report was covered up.

That report was the comprehensive 1999 Brisbane River Flood Study. The Brisbane City Council adopted a "no change, maintain status quo" strategy -- despite its expert review advising that such a strategy was "poor".

WimborneTBrisbane waterfront.jpg Tim Wimborne, Brisbane River water front Reuters, 2011

Thomas says:

the council had permitted the development of thousands of properties whose owners were led to believe they would be out of harm's way in a flood on the scale of 1974....In the debate that followed its leaking it emerged that misplaced faith by governments and residents in the flood mitigation potential of Wivenhoe Dam played into the hands of property developers, who were profitably turning low-lying swaths of Brisbane into expensive housing.

Campbell Newman, the current Mayor, campaigned against the Labor Council's secrecy over the flood study and he radically overhauled policies to warn the public of the severe risk of another major Brisbane River flood. But the developments had already happened.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:10 PM | | Comments (17)


Could put the NBN on the backburner.

A recent report talked of problems already with insurance companies ducking claims- same old, same old.
Yet people continue to build in areas flooded every so often, just as Victorians continue to build in locations subject to bushfire events. And why?
Because the land is zoned as appropriate for it by authorities.

In The Age Willem Vervoort says that:

because of the inefficiency of having dams solely for flood prevention, most dams have multiple purposes, such as for power generation or water storage - and these counteract the effective flood-prevention role.A water manager focusing on flood prevention would want a dam to be as empty as possible to store the maximum flood, while one focusing on irrigation, water storage or power generation would like the dam to be as full as possible.

Senator Barnaby Joyce and the Nationals focuses on dams for irrigation, and so they would like the dams to be as full as possible as opposed to dams being mostly empty, as in the past 10 years of drought.

Heather Brown in The Australian says in relation to the city of Toowoomba:

We built the wrong sort of houses and the wrong sort of bridges. We built towns and suburbs on flood plains. And we ignored at our peril the forces of nature and the history of the great floods that have shaped this continent for thousands of years.In our arrogance, we created towns and cities better suited to the whims of bean-counters and city-bound architects than the natural lie of the land.

Her case study of town planning in Toowoomba--a city that is dissected by East Creek and West Creek--- is a good example.

Developers and local councils made the most of the drought, but insurance companies never offered flood coverage for those areas.

People who've lived here long enough to remember past floods have been waiting for this, but a lot of the new, cheap housing was sold to people moving up from Vic and NSW with no idea of what could happen.

A Piers Akerman rant on water management in the Daily Telegraph.
His argument? Labor’s lack of leadership at the federal and state level today ensures that ordinary Australians are still denied effective control of the nation’s water resources.

He means more dams and schemes like the Bradfield Scheme to move water around.

In the Brisbane Times John Birmingham says that the real wet season hasn’t started yet.

There was never supposed to be another ’74. The dams got built up. We have a water grid now. A previous city council was so confident of these of other mitigation schemes that large areas of flood plain, completely inundated when I was ten years old, were eventually opened up to developers, some of whom built some very expensive water front properties down there.They’re pretty, those riverfront townhouses. But I don’t know that I’d want to be in one when the wet season kicks off in tandem with the cyclones of the new year.

He doesn't mention the infrastructure runoff and recycle stormwater --one presumes that the city council allowed development on flood plains without adequate levees, canals & storm drains.

Wivenhoe Dam has an "operational level" (100%) and a "flood mitigation level" (200%).What this means is it can temporally store water in excess of it's nominal levels to reduce flood damage downstream. Wivenhoe Dam is at 190 per cent . At 225 per cent capacity, Wivenhoe would start overflowing. Its top wall is made of dirt.

Wivenhoe’s five radial gates are currently releasing 205,000 megalitres per day. They have to discharge that water [further swelling the Brisbane River] … because more is on the way from Lockyer Valley.

The Brisbane River is expected to peak at 4.5 metres today. Authorities are planning for a Brisbane River peak of 5.5 metres on the high tides about 4am and 4pm tomorrow.

In Flood insurance must be accessible to all in The Australian Rachel Carter makes three good points.

Firstly, on the issue of flood insurance:

Perhaps the biggest problem is that many living in areas traditionally prone to flooding are effectively denied access to insurance. The legal regulatory system dealing with insurance allows for the private insurance market to be selective about risk and to decline insurance in areas where flooding may occur.

So we have market failure.The consequence is that people suffer badly from the losses.

Carter's second point is the way that governments can address this market failure. She say that in the US:

Where the insurance market declined the risk of insuring people in flood-prone areas, the government has worked with communities to develop flood plans to foster resilience should a flood occur, as well as subsidising insurance products.The lesson to be learned from the US example is that the system facilitates choice so that individuals can have access to insurance to protect their financial interests.

Carter's third point highlights what Australian Governments can do:
Australian governments should also be more proactive about not allowing areas to be zoned for development if there is a likelihood that it may be subject to extreme weather-related disasters, whether flooding or bushfire. The government should not, however, change the residential zoning of areas where people already reside, as this could lead to financial ruin for property owners in the area. Rather, given that the government has allowed residential properties in areas that are subject to flooding, it should make sure these people at least have the option to insure.

Some how I doubt that insurance will be available at an affordable rates in Australia for floods and bushfires.

Anthony Funnell at the ABC's Drum comments that , it isn't just that we've been building in an incorrect way--no stilts-- but that the big problem for a city like Brisbane is that we've also been building in the wrong places.

Three years ago I lived in a newly-constructed house built next to a major creek. There was only a thin strip of parkland separating the wooden fence from the gully. But there were other houses in the area built much closer; and during the short time that I lived there, I watched as developers were allowed to construct an apartment complex of several dozen dwellings literally overlooking the waterway. The back door of one of the ground floor units was no more than a few metres from the creek.How, I wondered at the time, was that ever allowed. And yet, if you travel around Brisbane you'll find many examples of houses and buildings built in places where water is clearly meant to flow - and eventually does.

He mentions the low lying areas of Milton and the West End, with histories of flooding, are designated zones for increased development, including new plans for high-rise residential towers.

I used the '74 floods as a guide when buying houses in Brisbane. But unlike many I am not greedy or stupid. It was quite obvious to anyone with half a brain that some of these areas would go under eventually. One estate in particular near Macdonalds Jindelea I remember there was a running joke with all the building workers that everyone had a snorkle and goggles in their toolbox.
I am sure the fine print absolves the Brisbane City Council of all liability as it will mostly do the same for the building inspection companies that did the prepurchase inspections.
I do feel sorry for the people and families that were renting these houses and lost everything. I think the B.C.C has a morale obligation to them.

Germaine Greer makes a good point in her Australian floods: Why were we so surprised? in The Guardian:

Smaller towns in Australia have been flooded for months; some have been flooded five times since the beginning of December. What the rest of the world must be asking is why Australians don't take steps to minimise the destruction? In the southern US you could take your Chevy to the levee; Australians rarely build them. An eight-metre levee has kept the town of Grafton dry, though the Clarence river is in massive spate, but Yamba, further downstream has no levee and is under water. Goondiwindi has an 11-metre levee to protect it from the Macintyre river, but hydrologists have predicted a peak of 10.85 metres – far too close for comfort

There are no levees in Brisbane. She says:
The rest of the world might well be scratching its head. Though the rise of the Brisbane river had been predicted for many days, owners left their boats on the river, some of them moored to pontoons, which were themselves ripped from their moorings. Literally hundreds of pontoons went careering down the river, crashing into unmanned powerboats that were already cannoning into each other.

The question to be asked is whether the flood risk can be reduced.

why is there no plan to build levees in Brisbane ? This should be a joint local / state / federal government initiative.


It would be more likely that they would put a pool fence around it.

it could be that the different levels of government bought the fiction that the Wivenhoe Dam would protect Brisbane from a repeat of a 1974 flood.

I don't buy that given the 1999 Brisbane River Flood Study, which the Brisbane City Council and State Government knew about, warned them of the opposite. So we have bad and incompetent governance.

Maybe even corruption ---city council and state governments taking money from developers who wanted to build on the flood plain.

Its becoming increasingly clear that:

(1) Brisbanites thought, and were told, that Wivenhoe Dam meant that Brisbane was now flood-proof;

(2) those who bought into expensive apartments at Tennyson Reach had no idea about flood levels. They were told that the ground level would not flood unless the Brisbane River reached a mark of 8.4m. They flooded at a peak of 4.46m.

The City Council approved all the apartments developments. Seems like Brisbane was in denial.

its ironic --the dam that was mean to save Brisbane is now being fingered as the key factor in the flood due to large releases of water to avoid the possibility of collapse.

The argument is that Wivenhoe held too much water given the recent establishment of southeast Queensland's water grid, with desalination plants and pipelines to ensure the region would not run out of water. It should have released more water much earlier.

Why did they run the biggest dam at 100 per cent of its supply level at the beginning of the wet season?

I think we needed Wikileaks in Australia a long time ago. Most of the problems with the Brisbane floods might have been minimised by more transparency. Transparency in planning at all levels,transparency in state and council processes and transparency in insurance policies. Everyone has complained at some time about the "fine print" on insurance policies - why the hell can't insurance policies have a form with all the different options listed, highlighting the ones which may be particular issues for the householder at their proposed address? The usual lack of understanding of probability/risk among the general public [and the assumption that insurance companies are somehow charitable a la AAMI lady] makes people sitting ducks for fine print smiling real estate agents. Public education DOESN'T WORK- just give us transparency so we'll know what we're getting ourselves into.
PS. We mustn't slag off the poor residents of Brisbane now they are ruined- it's a human problem now- we need to give them whatever it takes to get them all back to a semblance of normal. No blame no shame for the victims.