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.