Queensland, Victorian flood disasters: a socialist viewpoint

The devastating floods across Queensland and Victoria have killed dozens of people, displaced thousands and wreaked billions of dollars in damage to infrastructure and industry, leaving scores of shattered towns and cities. With the forecast for more cyclones and wet season rain fronts over the remainder of summer, the first steps of disaster recovery are taking place alongside debate and discussion on the worst floods in Queensland and Victoria since white invasion. Why did the floods happen? Will they happen again?

Initially the focus has been on whether enough was done to save lives and property and warn communities in advance. In Queensland after the January 10 week of flooding, this centred on the handling of the release of floodwater from the Wivenhoe Dam. Both the Queensland government and Brisbane City Council initiated formal inquiries to help quell increasing questions about the functioning of the dam and other disaster management issues. Those responsible for controlling the release of water from Wivenhoe Dam stated that they did so in accordance with designated procedures. For the time being, the state government and the council have stood by the actions of the dam operators.

Development issues

The Wivenhoe Dam has proved not to be the saviour it was meant to be. Completed in 1982 in response to the devastating 1974 floods, its primary function was flood mitigation. The record recent rainfall in south-east Queensland exceeded its capacity to prevent a catastrophic flood. It was only by good luck that the intense storms that precipitated the January 10 flooding did not coincide with the king tide cycles in December and January, which would have resulted in far worse flood damage. While the floods were not as extensive as in 1974, the impact has been far greater and has included areas that did not flood before. Not surprisingly, areas along the river with large natural buffers fared better than locations where development has removed mangroves and other river vegetation.

Brisbane Mayor Campbell Newman was quick to dismiss claims that the city council approved developments in flood-prone areas. An investigation of the areas that were flooded is under way, and there is speculation over recommendations preventing rebuilding in some areas. This may prove to be a contentious issue. Even a cursory review of known flood events on the Brisbane and Bremer rivers reveals that this is a river system that has major flooding every 30 to 40 years — often multiple times within a decade or even year.

Climate change

All levels of government dismissed or ridiculed any mention of human-induced climate change factors at play. The disdain heaped on Greens Senator Bob Brown for suggesting that the multi-billion coal industry should accept responsibility for contributing to the flood disaster points to how much they want to sideline climate change. Along with coal industry barons, the Courier Mail denounced Brown, its editorial on January 18 describing Brown’s position as “simplistic nonsense”.

But the facts speak for themselves. The lead-up to the January floods brought record monthly rainfall across central, southern and south-east Queensland. Parts of Brisbane experienced flash flooding in April-May 2010, followed by higher than average rainfall for the remainder of the year, including the wettest December on record. While most of eastern Australia is under the influence of the La Niña weather pattern, the flooding in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania is typical of a human-induced climate change event.

As with the Victorian firestorm of 2010, where fire experts described previously unseen fire behaviour, the storms and deluge that devastated Toowoomba and communities in the Lockyer Valley on January 10 were of a unique intensity.

Military pilots involved in the rescue effort said on the ABC’s 7.30 Report that the storm front and floodwaters were the worst conditions they had ever experienced.

Professor Ian Lowe, the head of the Australian Conservation Foundation and a climate change analyst, noted in an opinion piece printed in the January 14 Sydney Morning Herald: “The Queensland floods are another reminder of what climate science has been telling us for 25 years, like the recent long-running drought, the 2009 heat waves and the dreadful Victorian bushfires. As well as a general warming, increasing sea levels and altered rainfall patterns, climate modellers confidently predicted more frequent extreme events: floods, droughts, heat waves and severe bushfires.”

In the last few months  extreme weather events have occurred across the globe, such as the floods and storm damage in Brazil and Sri Lanka and the record-breaking blizzards and snowfalls in parts of the northern hemisphere. These are further examples of the types of weather events climate change specialists have warned of.

While Premier Anna Bligh has promised that the commission on the Queensland floods initiated by the Queensland government will be broad, deep and transparent, it is likely to avoid acknowledgment of human-induced climate change factors. For now, the federal and state governments and the big polluting corporations they support will be able to dodge their complicity in recent events. Future climate change disasters and extreme weather conditions, however, are sure to bring renewed calls for urgent and immediate action.