The inquiry into the Queensland floods has avoided scapegoating and concentrated on the systemic issues of disaster response. Ben Eltham looks at what went wrong last summer.
First published in New Matilda here.
Another natural disaster, another commission of inquiry, another report handed down.
Only two and a half years since the Black Saturday bushfires, another state is examining how it responded to a terrible natural disaster, and asking whether more lives could have been saved.
Yesterday, the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry handed down its Interim Report. Commissioner Catherine Holmes and her team have delivered a long and thorough document that describes the unique weather conditions affecting Queensland last summer, the terrible floods that ensued, and the response of Queensland state and local authorities.
Naturally, much of the mainstream media reporting has focused on whether anyone was to blame.
The report sidesteps the thorny issue of culpability, instead delving into the systemic and managerial issues that led to confusion and in some cases errors. But it also praises the dam operators at Wivenhoe, stating that they followed their manual appropriately and were “diligent and competent and acted in good faith throughout the flood event”.
The Floods Commission’s key recommendation is that Wivenhoe dam levels be lowered to 75 per cent “if the Bureau of Meteorology makes a similar seasonal forecast to that made for the 2010/2011 wet season.” This would increase Wivenhoe’s flood mitigation capability and potentially save houses downstream. It also recommends that the existing flood manual at Wivenhoe be torn up and a new one written.
Much of the media commentary has focused on whether Wivenhoe operators let too much water out of the dam during the January floods, inundating more of Ipswich and Brisbane than was necessary. The report found that while the dam operators might have technically been in breach of their manual, they acted in good faith and in general did all they could with limited information.
Interestingly, the report also tries to dispel the myth that had grown up after Wivenhoe was built that the dam would prevent another flood on the scale of 1974. In fact, as the report argues, “whatever the source of the apparent popular misconception that Wivenhoe Dam would contain all floods emanating in the upper Brisbane River, it is certainly not any of the engineering investigations conducted in connection with the dam during the past four decades.”
“It is trite to say, yet important to note, that the capacity of flood mitigation dams to contain floods is subject to the volume of rainfall experienced in the dam’s catchment. The ability of operators to manage a flood is very limited when the volume of rainfall run-off greatly exceeds the volume of the available flood storage within the dam.”
In other words, Wivenhoe was never likely to contain January’s flood. It wasn’t built for such an eventuality. Indeed, in a future flood of 1893 levels, Wivenhoe would have to release even more water — a sobering thought for downstream residents.
That’s not to say the Interim Report is a whitewash. Far from it. Justice Holmes has identified some serious shortcomings with the current arrangements. The dam operators at Wivenhoe, for instance, lacked detailed hydrodynamic models that would allow them to forecast the impact of water releases on downstream urban areas — particularly for Ipswich and the Bremer Valley.
The relevant Minister, Stephen Robertson, also comes in for veiled criticism. Robertson apparently had a chance to lower water levels in Wivenhoe in late 2010, and made a number of enquiries to put that in train. But he didn’t adequately follow up on the issue, and when conflicting advice came back from the department and the various water agencies, he postponed a final decision on the matter.
In this section, the report describes levels of bureaucratic confusion and blurred lines of responsibility that will be familiar to students of other natural disaster responses — for instance, the 2009 Victorian bushfires.
There was serial confusion about who exactly was in charge of water levels at Wivenhoe dam. Was it the Minister, the Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM), or the various water agencies such as Seqwater, the South East Queensland Water Grid Manager, and the Queensland Water Commission? The report says it was ultimately the minister’s responsibility, but that the bureaucrats gave him conflicted and contested advice, and that he struggled to make his wishes clear.
Then there’s the issue of the now-notorious flood mitigation manuals, which are ultimately the responsibility of the Director-General of the Department. However, the relevant legislation, the Water Supply Act, “does not contain any criteria against which a flood mitigation manual must be assessed”. Worse, according to the Report, “the water agencies and [the Department] seem incapable of agreeing upon their respective roles. Seqwater and DERM have had fundamental disagreements about the advice Seqwater should be providing to the Minister.” Any decision to vary the dam levels would have needed to have been made by the minister, presumably in cabinet. But no decision ever came.
One of the key issues appears to have been the desire to save as much water as possible, even in the midst of one of the wettest summers in decades. Queensland’s long drought of 2001-2009, when Brisbane’s dams nearly dried up, remained fresh in the memories of water managers. As a result, “water security” stayed paramount in Seqwater’s calculations, even as rain continued falling. Robertson, meanwhile, had dropped the ball.
The report also looked at the response of emergency services agencies to the catastrophic events in the Lockyer Valley. It found a number of resourcing, management and communication issues. In particular, many of the smaller local councils such as Lockyer Valley Regional Council, were quickly overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, and were not equipped or resourced to respond.
The Bureau of Meterology also failed to clearly and explicitly warn government agencies and citizens at risk. For instance, on 10 January, the day of the horrifying flash floods in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley, the Bureau failed to realise the significance of the Toowoomba rainfall for down-range communities. Although the report says the Bureau is not adequately resourced to monitor rural flood gauge levels across the state, and that no-one could have foreseen the Grantham disaster, the fact remains that “the Bureau, and other agencies, were oblivious to what was actually happening in Helidon that afternoon.”
As with any report this size, it is impossible to canvass its full recommendations and scope. Nonetheless, the report is a welcome addition to the body of knowledge of Australian disaster response efforts. It is careful to examine what was, and was not possible, in the hectic weeks of summer when the rain fell and the waters rose.
Perhaps most importantly, the report avoids what US academic Susan Moeller calls “the hunt for the perpetrators” and instead carefully examines the systemic issues involved.
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