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Byron Shire
April 23, 2024

Editorial: Building flood resilience

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Cars wait for floodwater to recede from the road. Photo Aslan Shand.

Resilience is a word bandied about a lot these days. From fires to floods we are being told to build ‘resilient communities’, but it is not just the human aspect that needs resilience. It is also the infrastructure.

The devastation experienced across the Northern Rivers and the east coast of Australia over this year has reinforced the need for communities to look to flood-resilient infrastructure that ‘makes space for water’, rather than assuming that everything needs to be floodproof. This is not a new idea. In 1945 Gilbert Fowler White, known as the ‘father of floodplain management’ criticised the reliance on engineered flood defences according to David Proverbs and Jessica Lamond in their paper on Flood Resilient Construction and Adaptation of Buildings.  

Living, as I do, in the hinterland of Byron Shire, it is easy to see the outcomes of attempts from the 1950s onwards to ‘floodproof’ roads, bridges, housing and other infrastructure by bringing them up above predicted floodwater levels. The unfortunate legacy means that floodwater that once spread over a wide area, the floodplain, is now dammed by bridges, roads and other ‘floodproof’ infrastructure that channels water, speeding it up and creating significant damage.

The question now is, what should we be aiming for in the future? Especially in an era of climate change where, for every degree centigrade of warming, there is a seven per cent increase of water vapour entering, and falling from, the atmosphere.

According to Proverbs and Lamond there are three approaches: avoidance, i.e. not building in flood-prone land; water exclusion; and water acceptance. When we are talking about flood-proofing or flood-resistance we are talking about water exclusion, creating environments and infrastructure that floods won’t impact on or breach; a house or a road that never floods, for example.

However, flood resilience, or water acceptance, refers to recognising the environmental impacts of flooding, and working within that context by making space for water. That means recognising that where a road, bridge or building is placed, it might flood because of its location, but when the floodwater recedes that road etc is not, or is minimally, damaged. It is about building so a natural system can bounce back to its previous state quickly.  

As one local put it, ‘I know the water comes up and goes down; I don’t need a “floodproof” road just so I can pop down to town for a latte. If needs be I can wait a few days till the floodwater clears’.

Aslan Shand,  editor

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  1. Sometimes people amaze me with their selfish view of life. What if you or a loved one was dying in a house next to the cafe where you get your ‘latte’? Shouldn’t an ambulance be able to get to them in a certain flood event?

    As you may know from your brief google of floodplain management and flood design is the whole process is a tradeoff between the level of service need/expected the cost and the other impacts. These other impacts may be increased flood levels up or down stream, increased footprint of the infrastructure, time for receedence. This is factored into any designs of infrastructure (unless the designer and asset owner are negligent).

    What is the right balance? That’s up to the politicians to make the call I suppose (unfortunately).

    • Maybe a helicopter or flood rescue boat would get to the patient better than a road ambulance.
      Perhaps it’s up to us all to to try and make sure the politicians make socially and environmentally just decisions.


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