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Byron Shire
July 14, 2024

The cause of the Northern Rivers floods

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Flooding in Lismore, looking south to airport, 31 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

The prime minister recently referred to the Northern Rivers’ floods as a ‘natural disaster’ that was a ‘one-in-500-year… event’.

Similar language has been used by political leaders in describing the covid pandemic as a ‘one- in-a-hundred-year event’.

Politicians like to use this sort of rhetoric to re-assure citizens that these ‘disasters’ are both ‘natural’ and unusual – largely because nature itself is chaotic. The role of government is to impose order over this pernicious and unruly phenomena.

Having worked for many years in disaster research and recovery, we’ve long-since concluded that there is actually no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster. Disasters only occur when human interactions with natural processes (ecosystems) become disjunctive.

That is, a disaster happens when human social and economic systems breach the ecological bonds that sustain us.

The Northern Rivers floods are a pure example of this sort of breach. Yes, it’s quite normal for the rivers and lowlands of this region to flood during the wet season. Some years are worse than others. At the tail of the current La Niña weather oscillation we might have expected higher than average rainfall and the corollary of significant flooding.

House in North Lismore with rising floodwaters, 30 March 2022. Photo Adam Guise.

Flooding normal

As Indigenous knowledge and geological records have demonstrated, such flood events have been occurring across the region for many millennia.

But the Indigenous groups who occupied the region before the English invasion never settled permanently on the lowlands. Their understanding of natural systems ensured their safety from flood.

The European invaders, however, cleared forests and wetlands for agriculture and urban-commercial settlement. Because their settlements required so much water, Europeans clustered around river flats, using their own technologies to tempt and evade disaster.

Moreover, because European societies were  organised around militarizsed hierarchy, less affluent people were usually marshalled into flatlands that were at greater risk of flooding. The more affluent and politically powerful groups occupied the higher ground which was less vulnerable to inundation.

This pattern of social division and military invasion is not unique to Australia, of course. It is really a template in the history of what we call ‘civilisation’.

Beginning with the adoption of agriculture and permanent settlement, human groups around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers re-oriented humans’ relationship with one another and with nature. Military power, territorial expansion, social division and super-humanoid gods appear – along with the idea of the flood as an organising political metaphor.

Like blight, floods were used by military and religious élites of the time to justify and impose their power. The flood and other ‘natural disasters’ were deployed in a rhetoric of ‘divine justice’.

For example, the Great Flood appears in the religious narratives of The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Old Testament (Jewish Bible) and the Qu’ran (Sutra 11 and 71). Each of these texts explains the natural phenomena of flooding as divine reckoning.

Miscreants who disobey the dictums of the regal or omnipotent ruler will get what they deserve.

Unfortunately, miscreants were usually the slaves, poor workers and farmers who were forced to live in the lowlands, while the wealthy militarists lived on higher ground in fortified palaces.

House in North Lismore with rising floodwaters, 30 March 2022. Photo Adam Guise.

Housing crisis

Capitalist economics has clearly inherited and amplified this principle of ‘just deserts’ and ‘divine justice’. We only need to glance at the delta dwellers of Bangladesh, the Mekong or Congo River to see how this pattern has survived into the present as an organising social (global) system.

The principle of ‘just deserts’ is also evident in Australia. The people who have suffered most from this one-in-five-hundred-year Northern Rivers flood event are those who were living on the flatlands of Lismore and elsewhere.

The general pattern of social division has been further exacerbated in the Northern Rivers as a result of the region’s housing crisis. As developers colonise real estate for short-term holiday accommodation, many community members are being forced to marginal accommodation in flood prone areas, including caravan parks.

The issue of flooding and disaster, however, reaches beyond human social divisions. It’s quite obvious that some areas of the Northern Rivers that have been cleared and settled should never have been developed at all. Forests, coastal woodlands, intermittent lakes and wetland ecosystems all hold water and filter it for a gradual release into the sea. They provide a buffering reservoir effect that modulates the destructive impacts of extreme rainfall events.

The destruction of forests and wetlands for human settlement disrupts this beautifully complex eco-balance, leading to more frequent and more damaging flood events.

Add to this the radical effects of climate change and we have a cataclysm of prophetic proportions. This isn’t ‘divine justice’ so much as a human-engineered disaster, which threatens the life systems upon which all species depend.

A devout Christian, the prime minister is clearly hostile to nature and natural systems. In the vision of a divinely directed civilisation, nature must submit to human needs and a capitalist economy that is predicated on ceaseless growth and divisive domination.

In placing humans over nature and planetary life forms, people like the PM are dedicating themselves to the exponential expansion of disaster.

Even if we forgive such people for this unknowing devotion to capitalist economy and its ideology of ‘divine economic justice’ – there is still the glaring failure of our political classes to address climate change. Australia, specifically, remains gripped by political ineptitude and indolence.

Our policies and actions of mitigation and adaptation are appallingly inadequate.

Yes, there will be an enquiry into the floods. We will examine the failings of the emergency response, of inexcusably inadequate levee systems and drainage. We might even realise that some urban settlements and coastal development should never have been approved. Developments like West Byron.

By then the developer has long since fled the scene with their millions stashed for more destruction.

These developers and their political supporters have no interest in community or our natural ecosystems. They have raised themselves above the flood. You’ll see them living on a high plateau, well beyond the reach of divine justice.

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  1. Well apart from your blatant racism, communism, and borderline genocidal ideation, I agree with you.
    If you live on a flood plain, expect to get flooded out at some times. If you live in a forest, expect to get burnt out.
    Nature evolved you to have a big brain so you could dominate the environment. It did this by killing off the stupid ones.
    The environment is not warm and fuzzy, it doesn’t care about you and will unthinkingly crush you if your too dumb to manage to be human.

    Our ancestors survived successive ice ages in Northern Europe. You had to be extremely intelligent, very patient, disciplined with your use of scarce resources, and most of all, really good at forward planning. The writer is correct that these extreme weather events are actually the norm. There are quite times, and then the place lets loose again. This should not be a problem for us.

    A problem I see is the stigma around “prepping”. Prepping is literally how our ancestors got from one year to the next. Worrying about possible disasters is basic operating procedure, it’s not kooky, it’s common sense. Maybe that once in 500 year flood won’t happen in your life time, it doesn’t make you crazy for having an inflatable raft.

    Where you are sitting right now gets earthquakes, I’m not kidding. Newcastle can tell you all about it. In 2016 I was in Townsville and they had a small one. Put the wind up the locals cause they didn’t know that could happen, well it can and does, just really infrequently, like the tornado they had just after that. It was little and only destroyed a small section of an industrial estate, but no one watching it knew what they should do. Do you know what to do in an earthquake? Look it up and file it away in the back of your head just in case. Tornadoes too because Eastern Australia does get small short lived ones including in land.

    We periodically get a decade of cyclones and we are coming into that cycle now. Usually only cat 1 or 2 being so far south, but for a while they start making it down the coast year after year and then stop for many decades. SE QLD seems to get particularly hammered during these periods. It’s a natural cycle. Be ready for that too.

    The point is prep. It’s mostly about learning what to do and then thinking about each every time you move into a new house. You don’t need a lot of stuff and it mostly all over laps. If you live on a flood plain, you will of course think more of floods. If in a forest, fire is bigger for you, but have a clue about the other stuff and what to look for, when to react, and what you plan to do. That’s pretty much how the Aboriginals did it. Notice certain signs, execute your plan for that. Maybe it’s a false alarm, but maybe you are wise for reacting anyway. At least you practiced your plan for next time.

    And seriously people, get a good first aid kit and take a first aid course. If you are expecting, have a baby, or and infant, that’s an extra first aid course. You can do them online. I can guarantee that you will use it at some stage at least once. Just go do it.

    Places like Lismore are suppose to be farming colonies. Your not suppose to use it as metropolitan hub, there just for exploiting the fertile flood plains. Ignore the writers religious and racial bigotry, and listen to his points about this environment and pre-planning.

    • “……..the environment. It did this by killing off the stupid ones” If only. Unfortunately there are millions of stupid ones left..

      • I think you are referring to the current period of degeneracy. I’d suggest reading a primer on R-K selection theory to see how nature corrects this to keep the trend positive.

      • So we have a Dr and a Professor suggesting that natural disasters – such as Avalanches, Tsunamis, Volcano eruptions, Lightning strikes, Landslides and sinkholes – are caused due to our social lives and the economy?

        Surely that “finding” was meant for April 1st.

    • Chris, What a pleasure to read an intelligent and factual response. And in semantically and syntactically correct English as well. I stopped reading the Echo years ago because most of the bloggers are, well, lets just say they seem a bit slow. But if you keep contributing I`ll keep reading.

  2. First nation’s people’s adviced the powers that be
    Not to build the central business district that is lismore now… one would assume that they would heed that advice, considering those first nation’s
    People’s have been roaming those area’s for 10s
    Of thousands of years… and certainly would have
    Seen the efforts of this land of flood’s and drought’s ..

  3. The crux is the principle of ‘developing’ land by ‘developers’. Developers have only one motivation: profit. They don’t care what happens after they’ve sold their developments. Without strict and rigid controls, it leads to the outcomes we are seeing now.
    It would be better to leave development to government authorities that develop based on science and sustainability – unless corrupted. This train, however, has left the station decades ago.

    • Think the problem maybe too much trust in government. People think that if the council has allowed it, it must be cool. If there were no council regulations, people would engage private services to check the place out first. If any private engineering service lied to people, it would get sued out of existence.
      Government doesn’t eliminate dodgy business practices, it facilitates it. You propose to put it in the hands of bureaucrats that don’t get fired if they screw up, they get transferred.

  4. Aside of the semantics about whether the floods were a “natural disaster” or a “natural system”, the fact is that they were natural and could have happened at any time even before climate change due to burning of fossil fuels kicked in. In Brisbane, there had already been flooding on the Brisbane River of 3 metres higher than the 1974 floods, in the 1890s, and a much bigger flood like this always was possible in Lismore. Indeed the Aboriginal people warned of it. To tbe extent that the city was unaware of the possibility, it was wilfully unaware.

    It is also true that the possibility of massive floods in Lismore, and the possible frequency of them, has increased with the changing climate – and this will continue (escalate).

    There is no levee system that can be built to safely and reliably protect the city from massive floods, nor a dam.

    In light of this, it is immorally irresponsible to plan the continual rebuilding of the city in the river – and all of those advocating and planning this will be seen as such in the future

  5. Come on you fellas, sober up !
    You are obviously missing the point of the article, which is that the very system of government and capitalism have have colluded to not only encourage the poorest to live in land subject to flooding ( cheap land subject to unscrupulous profiteering of ‘developers’ and the incompetence or corruption of local councils ) Meanwhile for the same reasons , Federal government are bankrolling foreign interest’s heist of petrochemicals in a last ditch effort to profit from the trade that is responsible for the ever increasing rounds of catastrophes caused by the coal, gas, and petrochemical industry.
    Mike you don’t seem to understand ‘development ‘is in the hands of “government authorities that develop based on science and sustainability – unless corrupted. ” that’s the problem !
    Barrow’s admonishment to heed the advice of those roaming the area for 10’s of thousands of years is all well and good, if we are content to limit development to the extent of rocks and pointy sticks and what you can carry as you’ roam’
    I’m not real sure what Chris is on about, unless it is become a “prepper” and stay away from flood-plains and forests to avoid the environment that is hell bent on “killing off the stupid ones” and it is the victims fault, especially “if your too dumb ”
    …..And now I’m worried because , I must confess, I missed entirely the whole ” blatant racism, communism, and borderline genocidal ideation ” so I must be at least a little “dumb”
    Oh , Well ! , Cheers G”)

  6. This does not explain all natural disasters.
    Plates moving?
    Personally, I’m not finding this a very well thought out article.

  7. Actually the reason they settled Lismore at its current location is because when it was first settled, there were no roads and much of the land between Lismore and the coast was swampy and impassable. Lismore is the furthest up river a ship could go and this is why Lismore is where it is. All the oldest local roads also follow ridge lines such as the original Pacific Highway which follows a ridge from Ballina to Mullumbimby and was Coollamon Scenic drive from St Helena to Mullum and then onto Billinudgel. The ridges were the only firm dry ground for roads and the rivers were the natural highways before roads

  8. A couple of points

    – I have heard from several people with sound connections into the indigenous community that their songlines tell them about floods even larger than our February flood prior to European settlement. Blaming deforestation and development doesn’t stack up.

    – many flood affected households chose to live on the Lismore flood plain because they were able to access affordable housing there. In most cases, they were prepared to accept the risk of occasional flood events

    Where these people came unstuck was in expecting that the many levels of government would help them prepare for a flood event and recover from it, and as far as possible minimise the effects of it.

    • Exactly. Out sourcing your prepping to the government is going to leave you hoping the Army turns up in time before you are swept off your roof.

  9. Goodness gracious me! Really . . . ‘killing off the stupid ones’.
    Does Adolph Hitler rise again as some thinking Nomad then . . .

  10. North plateau and other higher areas need to be developed for all people in need of proper housing it’s not the developers causing flooding it’s the protester stopping more housing estates on higher ground

  11. Professor of what and Dr of what? Surely these two missed the April 1st dead line! I can only hope my taxes didn’t help to educate them .

  12. The title probably misleads a little, but this is a really well-thought through explanation of why the floods were such a disaster. The point is: we shouldn’t blame nature for these disasters. We should examine human actions. Understandably, people are traumatised and may not be ready to think about these things clearly. I guess that’s why so many of these comments are negative and misread the article. Personally, though, I’m grateful to the two professors.

  13. You say ….”The role of government is to” impose order over “this pernicious and unruly phenomena. Impose order by raping the land for housing so they cab create ‘Economy’. A term relating to the creaton of TAXES.
    This is all on the Governments of the Colony. ( And the Stupid Voters) Why? Because it’s them that allowed the deforestation for settlements. Not the people. The general public are either lower class or middle class and totally uneducated and so the govt just does what it wants to accomodate the rise in taxes so they can pay their debts through land taxes and capital gains taxes – (just to name a couple that come out of land grabs) and this means making more houses for more people including imigrants. We the people have been informing the govt of their blatant stupidity for years but their priority is to pay back their Debts to the Central Banking system that kust keeps rising interest rates and causing stockmarket crashes and booms.


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