The Sinking Of The Wivenhoe Doctrine

Posted: 18/01/2011 in General

I am not looking forward to the inevitable conversion of the Brisbane flood into just another political football. As an issue it deserves so much more than that – this is a major regional disaster in which people, People, lost everything, probably in some cases up to and including their minds. It would be a terrible thing to have to suffer. I remember vividly a primary school teacher of mine whose house went under in ’74 telling us that the worst thing was the smell. Not the first day or the second day after. The fact that it hung around for years.
Yet the relevant opposition leaders are already in on the game (even during the peak of the crisis, in the case of Tony Abbott), and Bob Brown is waving the Global Warming flag in resolute denial of well-documented history.

The papers today started talking about how they had conducted an analysis of the releases from Wivenhoe Dam and how it has transpired that the releases were not done in an optimal fashion. Let’s assume the papers are completely right and that errors were made. So what. The people operating the dams were doing the best they could according to guidelines that they would have had prescribed for them under difficult and ever-changing conditions. Even if the commission of inquiry finds some fault there, they are to be thanked for their efforts nonetheless. They deserve no ignominy. The dam releases are a very small point in a much bigger issue.

The real fault concerning the Brisbane & Ipswich floods lies with the culture in South-East QLD stretching back 30 years.
As a lifelong denizen of the area, I know the mantra well: “There’ll never be another flood like ’74. Wivenhoe will stop it”. This has been repeated throughout the region at any time when flooding has come up as a topic of conversation – the absolute certainty that Wivenhoe Dam would infallibly prevent any future inundation of anything downstream from it.
Now, at last, Brisbane knows that there is absolutely nothing standing in the way of it happening again. The Wivenhoe Doctrine, as I have come to call it, is dead.

Whilst Wivenhoe is a brilliant piece of the arsenal that we have to mitigate flooding, the fact that it has finite capacity (its flood mitigation capacity was about enough for a mere 2 days’ worth of inflows during the recent stupidly heavy catchment-wide rain), and the fact that it constrains 50% or less of the total catchment of the Brisbane River, mean that it was never going to guarantee to stop all future floods. The people who conceived it probably never thought that it would.

The flood we had in Brisbane & Ipswich last week was utterly  inevitable. The damage and loss we had last week downstream from Wivenhoe was, in part at least, avoidable.

It wasn’t the fault of governments or councils. It wasn’t the fault of engineers, scientists, or meterologists. The fault lies squarely with human nature. We embraced and put all of our blind faith in a single silver-bullet solution, as is so often the case – we love simple answers to complex problems, and we haven’t yet learnt that those two things seldom mix. It was folly from the start, and it was this blind unreasoning faith that led to wildly inappropriate land use downstream of Wivenhoe, and the neglect of other valid flood mitigation strategies like levee banks in appropriate places.

Now, though, we have a problem that we know lacks a solution. At long last the right people can swing into action and take the next steps, whatever they might turn out to be. It’s well overdue.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Haggis McTaggart. Haggis McTaggart said: RT @sjb351: New blog post: The Sinking Of The Wivenhoe Doctrine: […]

  2. Jai Normosone says:

    So you are saying that people have to *stop* thinking that everything that happens is the fault of someone else and that at least a considerable part of what happens to them *can* be avoided if they would THINK for themselves and take a little bit of responsibility for their actions?
    Interesting concept.

    Of course, there are those who would say that the people of Grantham and Withcott didn’t do anything wrong and that they weren’t just sitting around with their thumbs up their collective backsides waiting to be washed away. This is very true – but there is also a percentage of the population who do just that and then blame the world for their problems.

    It is a very great shame that such a flood has hit Brisbane (amongst other places) again and, in 20-20 hindsight, I will say that I knew it was coming one day. The last 15 years in Brisbane has seen a significant increase in properties built on flood plains on the promise that the developers have added “suitable” flood mitigation drains. That is crap. Developers do NOT do anything they don’t have to and when it comes to drainage, it is the absolute minimum and usually and afterthought at best. I wonder how many homes went under between Bald Hills and Carseldine (near the railway line) when this area has not flooded since about ’97 or ’99 – so this must mean that it will never flood again in the eyes of developers and the newly cash-enriched councillors that propose such developments.

    The only upside of this whole flood though is that *maybe* there will be some improvements made around Brisbane and the Lockyer Valley to hopefully slow down such an event should it happen again – and it is greatly hoped that 20 people don’t need to die next time because of it!

  3. sjb351 says:

    I was very careful to focus on the flooding below the Wivenhoe Dam wall. Grantham and the rest of the Lockyer were just damn unlucky, and there’s nothing to be done about it – they were basically struck by lightning.

    But yeah, development along the lower Brisbane river has been a problem for many years now.

  4. rfc1394 says:

    As it was well known that the Titanic was unsinkable, of course.

    In the movie “On Dangerous Ground,” the main character, Matt, admits that he doesn’t know whether the sinkholes in the movie that are threatening New Orleans would occur in a week or not for a century, but if they do, it would be as bad as if the levees failed.

    New Orleans’ Levees failed five years after that movie was made due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Just as was predicted by a report written years earlier by a U.S. government agency as one of the three major disasters that would cause massive economic damage to the United States. The second being the failure of the levees failing in the Sacramento Delta neare the capital of California. The third being a duplicate of the earthquakes about 150 years ago that hit, not California, but New Madrid, Missouri and were worse than anything California ever had.

  5. Lucinda says:

    Even though this is last year’s news…it is very interesting. I searched google for news and pictures about the dam. Thanks for the link.

    Queensland looks like a wonderful and beautiful place. Is that the place called, Never-Never Land? (if one has never been there, they never never want to go; but if one has been there, they never never want leave)

    Thanks for the glimpse of Bisbane and the Wivenhoe. We all need to be more aware of the fact we live on an ever-changing planet that will win over civilization without giving much notice. The earth wins whether we like it or not.

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