Post by Ina Richter
The year 2013 is still fairly young but already there have been major natural disasters. Among these are the tremendous floods in the Australian states of Queensland and New South Wales, brought on by Cyclone Oswald. The cyclone had formed in the Gulf of Carpentaria just north of Australia. It was degraded to an ex-tropical storm when making landfall on Queensland’s coast on January 22. Slowed down by a low pressure system, the storm hugged south-east Queensland for days before moving further south towards New South Wales. In the wake of Oswald, torrential rain and record breaking winds, tidal surges, and even tornados rushed over the East Coast.
Following a period of dry weather, the impact of the rather small cyclone proved to be severe. In Brisbane – Queensland’s capital – the central districts were flooded when Brisbane River burst its banks. Other places experienced lashing rains of 600mm and more in less than 48 hours, isolating some from the outside world. Powerful winds caused damage to critical infrastructures such as train tracks and power lines. The town of Bundaberg within the Wide Bay-Burnett saw unprecedented floods. All patients from Bundaberg’s hospital as well as about 7,500 of its 71,000 inhabitants had to be evacuated. Some of these don’t plan on coming back, according to media statements. Other voices call for the Regional Authorities to consider relocation of Bundaberg’s residents.
For many homes and businesses, Oswald has brought grief and devastation at a time when they were still recovering from the last record-breaking floods. Just two years ago, starting in late December 2010, intense rainfalls had inundated an area larger than Germany and France combined. On 11 January, three quarters of all Queensland was officially declared a disaster zone. Queenslanders were kept on alert until early February when Cyclone Tracy – a category five tropical storm – was rushing over the already saturated ground, devastating communities.
Areas that were hit hardest were the towns within the Lockyer Valley and Brisbane City. Australia’s third biggest city saw all-time high flooding. 22,000 homes were affected and tens of thousands people were left without electrical power. In Lockyer Valley, an extremely flood-prone region, 17 people lost their lives, 2,300 homes were inundated, and many had to be declared uninhabitable. Grantham was destroyed by a flash wave that streamed through the town. The aftermath of the disaster revealed pictures of devastating damage. As part of the recovery strategy, local authorities developed a master plan, including a relocation policy for the citizens of Grantham. Overall it is expected that 70-80% of Grantham’s citizens will ultimately move their homes outside the flood lines.
The flood events of the 2010-2011 cyclone season constituted Australia’s costliest natural disaster so far. This year’s waters have not reached the same levels. However, as many are still recovering and trying to rebuild their lives after the 2010 floods, the impact on individuals and communities has been catastrophic. In this context, statements on relocating to areas free from flooding are often raised. As Australia’s disaster history shows, these kinds of concerns are nothing new. One might recall Lachlan Macquarie – Governor of New South Wales – pledging to establish five new towns on higher grounds within the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplains – in 1810. A far-sighted man, he recognized the increasing disaster risks due to successive flood events in areas with growing populations. Since then, a handful of towns have been relocated, including Gundagai Town after the floods of 1852 and Clermont after the floods of 1916.
Today, with ubiquitous rhetoric on climate change, there is growing public debate about adapting to future flooding instead of simply rebuilding what is lost. Relocating homes to flood-free zones is again receiving greater attention, as a means of sustainably securing livelihoods in a country that is regularly struck by major natural disasters. As the cyclone seasons of 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 have already shown, certain flood risks seem to become increasingly unacceptable. Moving homes to higher land might therefore become a more prevalent policy in the future.
Ina Richter is a Research Associate at the Rachel Carson Center. She is pursuing her research into climate migration discourses in Australia as part of the “Climates of Migration” project.