Three major floods, four reviews, but still lessons to learn

By Karen Hussey and Jamie Pittock

The last few years provided plenty of data to help us reform our approach to floods. With devastating flooding in Queensland and Victoria in 2011 and 2013, we should have learned a great deal about which approaches to flood mitigation work and which are less effective. A review of four recent Australian studies of mitigation and adaptation, and a comparison to overseas recommendations, shows we are lagging behind international practises in a number of important areas.

The Australian approach

We looked at four recent reviews of flood mitigation and adaptation in Australia: the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry, Brisbane City Council’s Flood Response Review, the Victorian Parliament’s Inquiry into Flood Mitigation Infrastructure in Victoria and the Victorian Floods Review.

These reviews varied greatly in scope, and all produced a comprehensive list of considered and much-needed recommendations to improve Australia’s resilience to floods in the future. But one surprising fact was none of them dealt with future climate impacts. Some didn’t even mention climate change. Government reviews are expensive, but the cost is justified if they identify reforms which improve society. By not taking into account the risk of future climate change and its exacerbation of flood risk, governments are missing an opportunity to include those risks in the current reform agenda.

Australian governments take the attitude that we can re-make flooded communities exactly as they were before. As soon as a disaster is declared, federal funds are made available to rebuild to “pre-disaster” conditions. There is little or no expectation that infrastructure should be made more resistant to flood damage. In the United States 15% of federal funding is allocated for “betterment”; here there are virtually no resources to plan for, relocate or strengthen flood prone infrastructure to make it more resilient.

The Australian approach to “flood proofing” communities is to build levees. Levees essentially take the same body of water and squeeze it into a smaller space. They don’t encourage evaporation, and they push water to higher levels. They work well in small floods, and under those conditions are very effective at protecting communities. But in recent years we’ve seen bigger floods, and these are likely to get worse. In bigger floods the levees are often overcome, and the potential for serious damage becomes much greater than it would be without them.

“Non-structural” or “ecosystem” approaches to flood mitigation work much better than structural measures like levees. But in Australia, we rarely consider these types of measures.

International ideas

Internationally, the story is very different.

In our research we also looked at flood reforms in the USA, China and the Netherlands. In all three, climate change was a driving force behind their significant recommended reforms.

All of these countries recognise they have reached the limit of what levee banks can usefully achieve. Instead, they have instigated a range of reforms built around the concept of ecosystem management.

The first of these is “making room for the river”. The river channel is widened or deepened to allow more water to flow through while remaining within its bounds. Flooding of surrounding areas is reduced.

Since its devastating floods in the 1990s, China has been restoring flood plains, buying land around river channels and relocating people to higher ground. This has happened most famously as part of the Three Gorges Dam development, which attracted a lot of negative media coverage. But we’re finding that years after relocation, people have shifted to crops that are less prone to flood damage which, combined with being on higher ground, means they’re hit by floods less often, and they’re better prepared to deal with those that come along.

All three countries have changed the way they manage their floodways. Where cities and towns are vulnerable, the government diverts the river into agricultural land around the town. In a flood season the city is protected and agricultural areas are flooded instead. The farming communities are paid by the government to forgo income during floods, but still use the land at all other times. Australian research has shown that for graziers, more frequent flooding can actually improve farm incomes.

What could Australia learn?

Australia has dabbled in ecosystem approaches and relocation, but often in an ad-hoc way.

Critics of ecosystem approaches point out that it’s all very well to deepen a river upstream, but if you don’t deal with the towns downstream, flooding there will be much worse. For ecosystem approaches to work, management and planning have to be undertaken on a much larger scale.

In the southern Murray-Darling Basin, the government proposes removing constraints such as bridges and dams to allow for bigger peak environmental flows (that is, floods). This work is very promising, but what about the rest of the Murray-Darling Basin and, indeed, the rest of the country?

Currently, we don’t have coordination and integration across jurisdictions within and between states. But rivers don’t respect administrative boundaries: when you’re developing ecosystem approaches, you have to use the natural environment as your point of reference.

There have also been a few examples of relocating communities: Grantham and Gundagai being the most notable. This relocation is expensive, but as floods become bigger and more frequent it’s something Australia needs to do more often. The financial and social costs of retaining and rebuilding flood prone towns over and over and over again will soon add up. When the taxpayer is picking up the bill, at some point you must decide whether rebuilding is an economically viable solution, or whether in some situations relocation is the more sensible approach.

And of course we must take account of future climate risks. While none of these reviews seriously studied those risks, change is happening elsewhere. The Australian Rainfall and Runoff Guide is one of the most important national reference guides, and is used by planners and builders to help them allow for floods. It’s currently under review, and future versions will take account of the effects of both natural and anthropogenic climate change. This attitude should spread to all flood reform.

Karen Hussey receives funding from the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

Jamie Pittock receives funding from the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Monumentalism versus Organic growth in Christchurch, is there a solution to allow both?

Devastation in Christchurch has resulted in the central business district being the hole in an urban donut.  To fix the centre we have on the one hand the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) who have devised an anchor-project plan to re-energise and provide confidence to developers for the central city.

On the other, there is an agile and creative urban regeneration think tank called Studio Christchurch who are a ‘not for profit’ academic based organisation whose outcomes are about shaping the urban form by involving the arts, creative architects, engineers and the community to regenerate and stimulate a vibrant Christchurch.  CERA’s anchor projects are key civic, recreational and community focused developments with lots of public realm focus on the natural asset of the river Avon. Studio Christchurch are taking a bird’s eye view of how the city is reacting, emerging trends in energy and power, tourism, environmental effects, migration of offices, the supporting land uses to office developments, residential shifts and changes in land prices based on accessibility, infrastructure and financial opportunities.

Although complimentary there appears to be two methods to assisting the recovery of Christchurch which provides an interesting study about dictating and planning the urban landscape and letting it grow organically. Time will tell if we can build around the CERA anchor projects land use plan and facilitate good transport links whilst allowing developers to surround and infill between the anchor projects.  There does appear on the surface to be tension between a long term land use plan and what is needed over time to assist in rebuild and recover. In this presentation, Shaun will explore these initiatives further and discuss how dynamic zoning, that’s reflective and sensitive of time, may be a solution.

Shaun Hardcatle, Auercon, Christchurch NZ will speak at… the 6th Making Cities Liveable Conference, in conjunction with the Sustainable Transformation Conference, is being held from the 17th – 19th June 2013 at Novotel Melbourne St Kilda. The collaboration brings together National, State and Regional delegates to explore, exchange ideas and network.

Two Conferences! Three Days! 90 Presenters! One Location in 2013

www.healthycities.com.au

2011 Healthy Cities Conference a Success

This year’s Healthy Cities Conference in Noosa had over 70 presenters, who contributed to a range of session streams including,

– Physical Environments in our Cities and Neighbourhoods
– Green Principles – Green Design. The Future of Viable Healthy Cities
– Healthy People – Healthy Places
– Disaster Management – The Impacts on Population Health

During the closing forum delegates were asked to raise, with a panel of keynotes the major issues affecting healthy cities.  The 2012 Conference in Geelong will follow up some of the excellent contributions by the delegates in the forum.

Robert Prestipino the Directoror Vital Places spoke about “Local Ecommerce and Sustainable Towns – Will our Regional towns and communities be saved by digital highways?

Robert said “The evidence is clear. Regional identity and lifestyle is in decline. This decline has been long term and gradual. The issue is what are we going to do about it? Decades of concern and initiatives have done little to strengthen the future prosperity of regional communities. To turn things around and deliver the community’s aspirations for the future of their children and grandchildren will clearly require a new approach.”

He discussed how we create great regions to live, work and play… places of opportunity & lifestyle?

Matt Coetzee the Development Manager of Community Development with Aurecon discussed Australia’s sequence of extreme weather events. Cyclone Yasi and the floods of December 2010 / January 2011 saw more than 75% of Queensland officially declared a disaster zone. The impact on infrastructure and homes was devastating but the scale of the tragedy became that much more apparent as news of human fatalities was relayed by Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh.

Matt said “Sustainable urban development is a useful concept in considering opportunities to alleviate the impact of extreme weather events, and extreme floods in particular. Sustainable urban development provides a framework focused on creating urban communities where both the current and future needs of residents are met. There are two important principles—resilience and connectivity—that underpin sustainable urban development.

By defining the risks associated with potential extreme events and translating those risks into planning and design solutions urban planners attempt to increase an urban feature’s capacity to absorb change. This capacity, otherwise known as its resilience, allows it to persist in the face of the change and thereby improves its sustainability”.

The positive delegate feedback was overwhelming. Lisa Wood, Associate Professor and Deputy Director, Centre for the Built Environment and Health, School of Population Health said “A good mix of speakers, topics and participants overall. Indeed the diversity of participants greatly contributed to the informal sharing and learning that went on outside of sessions and it was good to see the intermingling of varied sectors and fields.”

The 2012 Conference will be in Geelong, Victoria from the 6th – 8th June 2012. Call for papers will open on the conference website soon, www.healthcities.com.au

Insurers reject proposals for mandatory flood cover

THE nation’s largest insurers have unanimously rejected proposals for mandatory flood cover and supported calls for a new government inquiry into disaster mitigation to find better ways to protect against natural catastrophes… more

The Myths of Recovery – Ed Blakely

The the worst is over in Queensland and Victoria. We can now turn our attention to what went wrong and how we can get it right in the future. But before, we try to get things moving in the right direction, we need to know what the best directions to go in are. As the Tin man said to Alice: “If you don’t know where you are going, any direction will do”.

Some directions provide false hopes and inevitably lead to repeating the same or worse problems. Here are a few myths that can and should be avoided. Here are the issues I suggest are the Five big myths of disaster recovery.

1. Put it all back together-she’ll be right mate!–It is tempting to think that if we just do what we have been doing and leave people to their own devices, everything will work out well. We feel the only thing government can do is get in the way. We want to get back to normal with everything in the same place. In fact, this idea is re-enforced by government leaders saying after disaster: “We are going to put it all back just like it was and soon.”

2. Just Fix what’s broken– putting in another dam and cleaning up will not be enough, no matter how tempting such ideas are. New Orleans had many levee failure pre-Katrina. If the levees don’t work in one time, more of them will not serve in another disaster. it is time to look at the fundamentals of what is causing and what will cause new disasters and make fundamental changes, as the Dutch have done, to deal with the problem or to recognize it can’t be dealt with.

3. We can do it alone–we had the disaster and we don’t need anyone form another place telling us how to handle our problems. We have plenty of smart people. It is true local people have a lot of good local knowledge but other experts may have more information and more experience–borrow it.

4. Property rights are first–our nation is built on the fundamental right to own and dispose of property as one sees fit-with a few rules. but how do we deal with property that exposes everyone to danger? who pays for rescuers and what is the role of government when the property right conflicts with the safety of the total community? We have to tackle this isue by making sure that everyone is re-settle in ways that benefit the entire community and without financial loss or too great a personal sacrifice.

5. Better warning systems is all we need–warning are good but the new storms are coming faster and hitting harder than our systems can cope with. Since we know the primary cause of the problems, we need to use the first warning by making sure natural systems flow properly and that new building in the hills or on flat land do not disrupt natural system to the point greater dangers are created.

In essence the trust is always the best antidote to any myths. so, we need to get as much information as we can before we act. Unlike Alice, we have to know where we intend to go

Ed Blakely, in charge of the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans after “Katrina”, he will present at the Healthy Cities Conference http://www.healthycities.com.au/

Wednesday 27th to Friday 29th July  2011
Venue: The Outrigger Little Hastings Street Resort & Spa NOOSA, Queensland

Sustainable Urban Development: Responding to Extreme Events

Australia, particularly Queensland, has recently been struck by a sequence of extreme weather events. Cyclone Yasi and the floods of December 2010 / January 2011 saw more than 75% of Queensland officially declared a disaster zone. The impact on infrastructure and homes was devastating but the scale of the tragedy became that much more apparent as news of human fatalities was relayed by Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh.

Sustainable urban development is a useful concept in considering opportunities to alleviate the impact of extreme weather events, and extreme floods in particular. Sustainable urban development provides a framework focused on creating urban communities where both the current and future needs of residents are met. There are two important principles—resilience and connectivity—that underpin sustainable urban development.

By defining the risks associated with potential extreme events and translating those risks into planning and design solutions urban planners attempt to increase an urban feature’s capacity to absorb change. This capacity, otherwise known as its resilience, allows it to persist in the face of the change and thereby improves its sustainability.

The elements of the physical, biological, social and economic system in which we operate are fundamentally connected. This interconnectivity is relevant in all systems, but particularly in urban environments, where the proximity of the component elements and the frequency of interactions are higher.

These high-level principles point to four areas of response available to help manage the impact of extreme flood events before they occur. Looking particularly at existing and future developments and structures, this paper will discuss the management imperatives needed to ensure our urban fabric is planned, designed and constructed to not only respond proactively to extreme weather events and the ‘human contribution’, but also addresses the need to remove the barriers to decision making when related to complex, interacting systems.

Mr  Matt  Coetzee,  Development Manager – Community Development  Aurecon

Healthy Cities: 4th Making Cities Liveable Conference – Wednesday 27th to Friday 29th July  2011 Noosa Qld, Australia

Urban Flooding Policy – What can we learn from the UK?

Many areas in Australia have recently faced major flooding following a long drought period. Whilst policies are in place to manage the impact of flooding including achieving appropriate flood immunity levels for development and minimising the impact of development on flooding – it is evident that many areas are at risk of flood inundation and its associated damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure.

The United Kingdom has also faced these issues with 1 in 6 (5.2 million) properties currently assessed to be at risk of flooding. A number of large flood events over the past 12 years led to a significant rethink in the approach to managing flood risk in the UK. One of the major changes relates to the improved links between development planning and flood risk management.

There was a renewed recognition that inappropriate spatial development has the potential to provide a triple threat to flooding by adversely affect flood sources (through increased runoff), flood pathways (through interference with defence and flowpaths) and receptors (by increasing the loss and damage caused by flooding). The Planning Policy Statement 25 on development and flood risk, has now evolved from an earlier planning guidance to prevent inappropriate development with respect to flood risk. At all stages of the development planning process, this planning document requires planning authorities to apply a risk-based sequential approach to the zoning and allocation of development land to ensure developments are placed at locations with as low a risk as possible depending on their potential vulnerability.

This paper will describe how planning policy and its implementation in the UK has evolved. Case studies will be used to illustrate particular aspects and draw out lessons learnt from its implementation. Potential refinement of Queensland policy to incorporate changes will be considered with discussion regarding the implications of such changes.

Miss Trinity Graham 
Principal Water Engineer
Aurecon 

Healthy Cities: Making Cities Liveable Conference 2011