In the early hours of Friday, October 14, State Emergency Service (SES) volunteers knocked on the doors of over sixty homes on a tidal flat around Anglers Tavern, not far from Highpoint Shopping Centre, in Melbourne’s West. They woke residents to tell them that the Maribyrnong River was rising rapidly and would soon inundate their homes.
Over the last week, similar scenes have played out in town after town across Victoria. The authorities have issued flood warnings for nearly all major river systems across the state as record rainfalls over Australia’s Southeast have left dams overflowing. In some areas, these warnings haven’t reached residents in time for evacuation, forcing them to save what they could before seeking high ground. Much of the state’s north remains at risk.
At the same time, across the state, residents have come together to help each other prepare or clean up. In Footscray, Victorian Socialists candidates for the November state election Liz Walsh and Van T. Rudd spent a day volunteering as part of a community relief effort organized by “Flood Warriors,” a grassroots mutual aid effort. Alongside residents and other volunteers, they converged at the flood’s ground zero, to help clear out destroyed possessions and the thick mud that the water had carried into homes.
“The sight of piles and piles of children’s toys and sodden books was heartbreaking,” Walsh recounted. “And it’s overwhelmingly everyday people who suffer the consequences of natural disasters. They’re going to become more frequent if we don’t arrest climate change and stop the destruction of our planet by capitalism.”
The common thread that runs through accounts of Victoria’s October floods is that they were predictable across a range of timescales. Despite this, maladaptation and denial stymied an effective response. Indeed, prominent SES volunteers and several hydrologists claim that the emergency warnings came too late. Upstream, Maribyrnong water levels had already risen above the levels required to trigger major river flood warnings from the relevant authority, Melbourne Water.
Perhaps worse still, numerical flood modeling — if it had been carried out — would have warned of the potential for flooding weeks in advance. The state’s catchment soil is soaked, thanks to three back-to-back La Niña events, a climate pattern that increases the tropical moisture flow to Eastern Australia. This makes flooding more likely because when it rains, there is little dry soil that can soak up the excess. A related Indian Ocean dipole phenomenon enhances this effect by bringing moisture from other parts of the tropics, especially in the spring when rainfall peaks in the Southeast.
It’s when all the climate ducks are in a row that extreme weather events manifest. That’s what is now playing out across the whole east of the continent, and indeed, anywhere in the world where the hydrological cycle is intensified. Simply put, warmer air holds more evaporated moisture, and this leads to deluges.
It’s not just scientific conjecture, however well informed, to say that these floods were predictable months and even years in advance. State government agencies have been discussing the impacts of increased rainfall and flooding since the first La Niña warnings in 2020. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has gauged the risks associated with releasing untreated sewage from water treatment facilities should their storage ponds overfill.
100-Year Floods Every Year
Although many agencies and experts have predicted this and other climate disasters, the on-the-ground response has been limited and slowed down by public sector cutbacks. The result is that communities are left exposed. For example, the Footscray SES — responsible for responding to the evacuation — had recently lost its only remaining rescue truck. According to a leading volunteer, this has left it with just “two utes and a boat operating out of the corner of a warehouse.” As a former Melbourne Water manager explained, the results of austerity could be lives lost: “Maribyrnong is the most dangerous place we have that floods [in Melbourne], you could easily have someone drown.”
In addition to demanding real action to stop climate change, Walsh is calling for serious investment in adaptation measures and emergency services. “Weather extremes are becoming the new norm,” she explains, and “terms like a ‘1-in-100 year flood’ are outdated.” It’s a view that will be shared by residents across the state. In Echuca, for example, residents have spent the last few days working around the clock to protect their town with levees and sandbags. The Murray River is rising, and its levels are predicted to rise higher than any point on record.
The reality is that the past is no longer a guide to the future. This is not just true when it comes to the frequency or intensity of floods and other disasters. It’s also true in a qualitative sense. Government agencies designate areas as flood regions based on the historic frequency of floods. But this is no longer valid, even in the traditionally conservative field of engineering risk assessment. The most recent “Australian Rainfall and Runoff” guidelines, published by Geoscience Australia, contains a new section on factoring in climate change. It argues that emissions pathway scenarios and intensification should now be factored into town planning and building and infrastructure design. In layman’s terms, it is now necessary to plan for floods in areas that have never seen them before.
Maddeningly, however, hundred-year maps are still used for planning approvals. And although the Victorian state government has spent money and created departments to mitigate and adapt to climate change, Premier Daniel Andrews has responded to criticism by deflecting blame. “Town planning,” he argues, “in the main is a matter for local government.”
Floodwalls for the Rich
The corporate world, meanwhile, have wasted neither time nor money in adapting and protecting themselves. In 2006, for example, the Flemington Racecourse built a floodwall to deflect waters from the track, which is built on a natural floodplain of the Maribyrnong. Aerial photos show clearly that the wall did its job, diverting huge volumes of water toward homes. If it weren’t for the wall, the racetrack would have acted as a sink, potentially saving residences and possessions.
While Maribyrnong’s mayor says it’s “fair play” for the racecourse to protect their grass at the expense of locals’ homes, Walsh disagrees. She summed up the feelings of many residents who “are fuming about the retaining wall around Flemington racecourse.” She continues,
It kept the lawn dry for a bloody horse race, but exacerbated flooding for nearby homes. The wall is a symbol of the class power of the racing industry and big gambling interests, and that our city is run in the interests of the few, not the many.
Structures like the Flemington wall interfere with natural flood attenuation provided by wetlands and forests, and it’s just one example of a pattern repeated across the city and country as green spaces are swallowed up for urban development. Maintaining these natural protective spaces has a twofold effect. As well as being natural dissipaters of excess water, they are carbon sinks. And yet, as Walsh points out,
Climate disasters like the recent flooding should be a loud siren for urgent action on the climate but there is so little discussion of this right now in mainstream press. We need to shut down coal & gas, shift now to renewables & stop logging our forests.
La Niña hasn’t finished; one of the coming counterintuitive risks is increased grass fire risk in the dry season (January-March) because of increased grass fuel growth over the wet period. Like with the floods, we should expect that these fires will have an impact on urban developments that have recently pushed out into grasslands.
Debates about infrastructure are being sparked, as events like Maribyrnong play out in town after town. Levee placement decisions, emergency release, and decisions about who is eligible for emergency assistance are all political decisions.
As Rudd says, “The divide between the rich and poor is constantly being exposed during this environmental crisis. When ordinary people’s homes are destroyed by floods or fires it can take years for things to be rebuilt, if ever. Then there are the playgrounds of the elites — even when racing events are not on, the lifeless racetrack is left protected by a levy to stop floodwater while peoples homes downstream are impacted by faster running water. That’s not right at all.”