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Brisbane - the flood we had to have

By Ian Cordery - posted Friday, 21 January 2011


If we don’t learn from history we are condemned to repeat it. So true where urban floods are concerned. The Australia Day 1974 flood in Brisbane was only 37 years ago. It is often discussed in that city, but its lessons are consistently ignored. Land that was submerged then will be submerged again - and again.

Detailed maps showing the flooded areas are available. Throughout Australia local councils and State governments attempt to zone flood prone land for suitable forms of development, usually excluding residential, commercial and essential infrastructure. However, flood prone land is often very attractive for development because of its location, offering water views, low cost building and proximity to highly attractive focus points such as transport hubs, shopping precincts or freeway access ramps.

Even with the best intentions of the land zoning authorities, the pressures from urban planners, real estate developers and current land owners usually becomes so great that local elected officials are eventually unable to resist the lobbying and “good economic sense” of allowing, little by little, unwise developments to creep into areas that are clearly likely to be badly impacted by the next (and all subsequent) flood event.

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Brisbane is a city of little hills and to concentrate the investments on the hills and use lower areas for low flood impact uses should not be difficult, though the rearrangement will inevitably take many, perhaps tens, of years and financially disadvantage some of the current owners.

Most of those responsible for land zoning decisions (both elected and appointed) start out with resolve to protect the public and prospective developers and land occupiers from themselves. However, over time memories fade and population turnover dilutes awareness of risk. At the same time profit possibilities increase and elected and appointed officials find they must respond to public opinion, which, with separation from the actuality of having water everywhere, accepts that floods are not so bad.

“Flooding occurred a long time ago but is not likely now, and it would make sense to allow redevelopment of this undercapitalised (read flood prone) piece of land”.

In these common circumstances the officials who developed the zoning recommendations, and subsequently feel a responsibility to protect the integrity of those regulations need assistance to hold their position.

Perhaps we need ongoing, state funded education and advertising campaigns to arouse and maintain public awareness of the flood dangers over the long term. Elected officials have great difficulty maintaining low risk land zoning if the public are not persuaded their stance is justified.

Large effort and expense, generally supported by the public is now having some success in dissuading smoking and prolonged exposure of the skin to sunshine. In major flood prone cities like Brisbane perhaps we need similar, ongoing advertising to keep the public convinced that large parts of their city, including areas of prime CBD real estate should be protected from development. The public purse should pay for this education because it is ultimately the general public who pay the price of the devastation of floods, not just the individual owners and occupiers of the affected land.

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A clear case of ignorance of history concerns location of vital infrastructure. In 1974 computers were large, very expensive items. Almost all computers in Brisbane at that time were located in the basements or ground floors of city buildings or at the University of Queensland at St Lucia. Most were destroyed, at huge direct cost and vast ongoing costs for recovery of commercial records, invoicing, staff data, etc. In 2011 that problem was avoided, but on January 14 Premier Bligh stated that it may not be possible to immediately restore power to many parts of the CBD because electrical sub stations were located in the basements of flooded buildings. Why were sub stations ever located where they were certain to be submerged?

We need action to ensure flood history is positively, sympathetically and continually brought to the attention of all who reside, work in, have dealings with or invest in Brisbane. Commercial interests will protest that this will be detrimental to real estate values and investment and as in the past they will attempt to undermine any plans for ongoing, widespread, meaningful flood education. The population, particularly our elected representatives, must take account of these opinions in their deliberations but stand firm so that our past ignorance of history does not ensure repetition of the current catastrophe.

The 2011 flood was about a once in 25 years event. How will we cope with the once in 100 years flood? It will come, and it could come this year!

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About the Author

Ian Cordery is a visiting associate professor in the school of civil and environmental engineering at the University of NSW.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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