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Flood management: a 12-point plan for Australia

By Chas Keys - posted Thursday, 17 February 2011

The anxiety is over, and the question is about what we should do now. After five months of repetitive flooding in all states and territories, with probably over 40 deaths and unprecedented damage, we should develop a strategy to manage future floods. Here are twelve guiding points.

  1. Stop seeing floods as enemies to be overpowered, and adapt to flooding. Much of the tone of recent discussions suggests that we have not learned the fundamental lesson that floods cannot be defeated or wrestled into submission. The construction of big dams, as some advocate, will be hugely expensive and of questionable value in big floods which quickly outstrip their mitigation capacities. This is not to say that dams with a flood mitigation component cannot be part of our strategy, but they cannot be a complete solution. No one measure can be. If we wish to enjoy the benefits of floodplains, we must adjust our lives and affairs to accommodate the floods that inundate them from time to time. In short we must learn to live with the flood hazard.
  2. Recognise that there is no simple panacea. Multi-pronged, locally-appropriate floodplain management strategies are needed. As far as engineering works are concerned, these might include levees, bypass channels and detention basins. Planning measures could include buy-backs of properties and the raising of houses. In NSW all of these things have been tried with success over the past half-century, but some problematic environments have yet to be appropriately managed. Not all measures are suited to every location.
  3. Ensure our institutions pull in the same direction. We cannot have councils promoting development in severely flood-liable locations and expect the insurance industry to provide cover there. Nor should taxpayers and public appeals be called on repeatedly to bail people out. And it is not wise to have the NSW Land & Environment Court sanction the building of aged care facilities in flood-liable locations, requiring the SES and other emergency services to mount difficult and dangerous rescue missions when floods strike. Such conflicts abound in Australian land management.
  4. Remove development from the worst areas. Dwellings and commercial developments that are inundated frequently, or to great depths in big floods, or which impede flood flows, should not be there. They are mistakes to be rectified. Damage is disproportionately concentrated in such locations and insurance cover is usually prohibitively expensive or impossible to obtain there. We need to make an effort to remove some at least of the inappropriate development of the past.
  5. Avoid the gradual intensification of community vulnerability to floods. The steady drip, drip, drip of pressure to build on the lower parts of floodplains erodes the resolve of councils, especially during lengthy droughts. People forget flooding and come to believe the flood problem has been ‘fixed’, the community drops its guard and community vulnerability is allowed to increase. An existing problem steadily gets worse, though no individual development makes a significant difference by itself. In the best of worlds there would be a ‘no additional vulnerability’ test on council decisions about the use of land.
  6. Map the floodplains and make the information available. Information on the effects of flooding at different levels of severity (for example, at different heights on a stream gauge) is needed by developers, property owners, purchasers, planners and insurers. It is the centrepiece of effective floodplain management.
  7. Help people to utilise flood warnings in their own interests. This is a matter of education which we have rarely brought to bear. Information is provided, but not teaching. People need to know what flood warnings mean to them and how to act - and before they see the floodwater. Much is lost because people seek to raise or otherwise protect belongings too late. We need to link Bureau of Meteorology flood predictions with the probable consequences of developing floods, and to better communicate information and advice to those about to experience flooding. Strangely this issue has had little play of late, but it is crucial to better community flood management.
  8. Create reminders of flooding, especially in flash flood environments. Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley were horrendous. In NSW, places like Fairfield, Eastwood, Kensington and Rose Bay have had severe flash flooding in recent decades, as have Newcastle, Coffs Harbour and Wollongong. Parts of Melbourne and Adelaide have had it too. Signage advising people of the danger and indicating what they should do when there is heavy rain or when flooding begins is necessary. Markers showing the levels reached by very large riverine floods are also needed as reminders of the threat. They do not have the negative impact on property values that is sometimes alleged.
  9. Spend on mitigation to save on relief. Our disaster relief system is generous by international standards, but it is a very expensive and inefficient band-aid. Reducing the problem in advance will be more effective.
  10. Stop talking down the threat. Floods cost more in dollar terms than any other natural hazard, but developers, real estate interests and councillors often minimise the threat and create a climate for further inappropriate development, more cost and more distress. Flood education is sometimes opposed, and business interests sometimes object to flood warning because they perceive a short-term negative impact on economic transactions.
  11. Build public safety considerations into land development processes. The SESs, as the flood management agencies in the various states, should have a say in what development is allowed on floodplains, just as the rural fire services around the nation do in relation to the granting of building permits in fire-prone areas. And while we’re at it, it would be wise to qualify the ‘one-in-100-years’ flood as the standard for guiding land use decision making in relation to residential floor levels: it throws no light on the risk situation. It sounds like a conservative standard, but it is not.
  12. Where building on floodplains is unavoidable, build in a flood-compatible way. That means using appropriate building materials and strategies. Slabs on the ground should not be allowed, and we should move away from plasterboard, chipboard and plywood bracing which cannot handle immersion.

We have allowed the problem of flooding to accumulate for decades, and it damages us repeatedly. Strong policy and community-protecting decisions - statesmanlike decisions, even - are needed from governments and councils. A larger, more co-ordinated effort is needed.


Many of the approaches advocated here have been tried before, but some are politically difficult and we frequently slip away from them after the hue and cry of a bad flood dies down. It is hard to be optimistic that it will be any different this time - which means that we will condemn ourselves to suffering unnecessarily over and over again when floods strike. The most manageable natural hazard that we have to deal with in Australia is rarely well managed.

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About the Author

Chas Keys is a flood consultant, an Honorary Associate of Risk Frontiers at Macquarie University and a former Deputy Director-General of the NSW State Emergency Service.

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