by Peter Fagan
The current flood events in Queensland and northern Western Australia are causing havoc and creating hardship for residents, farmers and industry alike. Right now, it is a matter of survival, but as soon as the danger passes, getting things back to some semblance of normality will be the imperative. Understandably so - communities need to return to their livelihoods as quickly as possible.
There is, however, another side to this issue in the context of planning for a future in which natural disasters occur with increasing frequency and on a greater scale. Yesterday's Australian Financial Review contributed to the discussion by publishing an opinion piece discussing the need for more dams to mitigate the impact of future flood events and capture water for use during periods of drought. The response from some politicians has been predictably short-termist: now is the time to focus on the immediate needs of the affected people.
Yet, by deferring the discussion we risk losing sight of the future and repeating the mistakes of the past.
We need to future proof our cities and towns by planning for and building infrastructure that has sufficient resilience to withstand natural disasters. Here, I am not just referring to flood mitigation infrastructure whatever that may be (dams, levees or a combination of the two). Damage to transportation, power, telecommunications, water, wastewater and other community infrastructure has been enormous. When rebuilding begins, priorities will need to be set and compromises made.
As this occurs, we need to be conscious of the balance between short-term goals and expediency and the longer-term sustainability of our communities. A solution may be in the form of temporary repairs (unsealed roads, for example) while the longer-term planning is completed.
Australia's engineering standards and methods traditionally rely on historic data to design infrastructure that meets our immediate needs and is unlikely to be impacted other than in exceptional circumstances.
Climate change alters this markedly in that the historical data is no longer relevant or reliable.
As we start to rebuild and repair, we should be, wherever possible, factoring in new design standards and allowances for the climate change-driven events that are inevitable.
About the Author: Peter Fagan has more than 35 years of experience and is MWH's Asia Pacific Sustainability Practice Leader. His extensive experience spans the technical and organisational aspects of sustainability through public and private sector roles, including more than 30 years with New South Wales' largest water provider. Mr Fagan currently serves as a member of the Technology and Sustainability Standing Committee of the University of Sydney's Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering. Peter can be contacted at +61 2 9493 9733 or Peter.Fagan@mwhglobal.com.