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Flood control: the reality

Disastrous Floods as Indicators of Systemic Risk Neglect (Part #9)

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In the light of the above argument, the question is the nature of the provisions made for the control of whatever systemic imbalances are typically described metaphorically as a "flood". Flood control itself is a continuing concern but may well be poorly conceived and managed.

This point is well made by Germaine Greer (Australian floods: Why were we so surprised by floods? The Guardian, 15 January 2011), arguing that meteorologists had warned Australians six months earlier to prepare for a soaking: And nobody did a thing... After 10 years of drought, we are having the inevitable flooding rains. The pattern is repeated regularly and yet Australians are still taken by surprise. As a resident of Queensland, she notes:

The meteorologists will tell you that the current deluge is a product of La Niña. At fairly regular intervals, atmospheric pressure on the western side of the Pacific falls; the trade winds blow from the cooler east side towards the trough, pushing warm surface water westwards towards the bordering land masses. As the water-laden air is driven over the land it cools and drops its load. In June last year the bureau of meteorology issued a warning that La Niña was about "to dump buckets" on Australia... Dr Andrew Watkins, manager of the bureau's climate prediction services, told the assembled media: "Computer model forecasts show a significant likelihood of a La Niña in 2010." ... Six months ago the meteorologists thought it was worthwhile to warn people to "get ready for a wet, late winter and a soaked spring and summer". So what did the people do? Nothing. They said, "She'll be right, mate". She wasn't.

With respect to flood control, Greer specifically notes:

The Wivenhoe Dam on the Brisbane river was built to protect the city of Brisbane from another flood like the one of 1974. For years it has been at 10% of capacity, so when it filled this year nobody wanted to let any of the precious water out. It eventually became clear that the dam had filled to 190% of its capacity, and the authorities realised with sinking hearts not only that the floodgates would have to be opened, but that the opening would coincide with a king tide in Moreton Bay. The question nobody has been heard to ask is whether or not the level of water in the dam should have been reduced gradually, beginning weeks ago. The mayor of Brisbane, aware that a disaster was about to occur on his watch, made a hysterical attack on the opponents of dam building, but what the succeeding events prove is that dams are no substitute for a coherent water strategy.

Whilst heavy responsibility for the flooding can be attributed to La Niña -- as an insensitive Act of God -- almost no mention has been made of those whose inadequate modelling and/or decision-making ensured that the damage was maximized. In a helpful summary of the insouciance of residents of the area, Greer asks:

The world is aware of what has been happening in Australia because so much of Queensland's capital city, Brisbane, the "most livable city in Australia", is now submerged in dirty brown water. 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?

Greer also highlights a neglected feature of such flooding by "brown water", namely the continuing loss of topsoil from the highlands and its pollution of marine ecosystems. She concludes: Australia owes it to the rest of the world to get a handle on its regular floods. Or she won't be right, mate.

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