In Queensland, no great barrier to flood recovery

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ImageThe New Year was not so happy in Queensland, Australia. In December 2010 and January 2011, floods swept across the state and at the beginning of February 2011, cyclone Yasi, a category 5 storm, struck near Cairns. Dozens died, hundreds were evacuated, thousands were affected and an excess of US$15 billion of damages were caused. A state of emergency was declared in all but one of the 75 councils. Seventy percent of the state was impacted; an area five times the size of the United Kingdom. 

On March 14, 2011, a World Bank team gathered in Brisbane, Queensland’s capital. Brisbane was hit hard with more than 40 suburbs affected and many flooded houses which will never be habitable again. I expected gloominess. But the debris was cleared away, the sky was blue, there was a light breeze and 28 degrees Celsius. The Australians we met lived up to their reputation: friendly, welcoming, and generous with time and information.

We had an exciting two weeks ahead of us: we were there to work with the Queensland Reconstruction Authority. The Authority was established through a parliament bill (pdf) in February 2011 to coordinate and manage the reconstruction and recovery of affected communities, including the repair and rebuilding of infrastructure.

Ten specialists from a range of sectors were on the Bank team: disaster risk management, economics, social development, communications, and environmental science to name a few. Following President Robert Zoellick's offer of assistance, the governments of Australia had requested Bank support for the reconstruction process. The undertaking was based on a knowledge exchange where the Bank contributes global good practice and at the same time learns from Australia's experience in recovery, reconstruction and risk mitigation.

We attended committee meetings of each of the six lines of reconstruction, read strategies, listened, gave feedback, and organized workshops on what has worked in the Bank’s reconstruction projects. We traveled to Lockyer Valley which experienced devastating flash floods. We spent time with affected business owners, farmers, volunteer groups, and local government officials. They were shaken by the floods but they also exhibited what the Premier Anna Bligh called the Spirit of Queensland: the will and energy to bounce back and support the recovery.

The Government response has been efficient and the greatest barriers on the way to recovery have been overcome. The authorities have reacted rapidly to save lives, provided emergency funding to individuals and communities, and set-up institutions charged with the management of the recovery and reconstruction.

Only two months after the floods, Queensland is already well on the path to recovery: most coal mines are back in operation, many families received financial assistance to cope with the impact of the floods, and new guidelines for resilient construction in cyclone prone areas were released. The Government and private sector have mobilized an estimated Aus$11.8 billion (including insurance payments), representing 75% of the estimated damage and losses, which is already above the 45% average of disaster coverage in developed economies.

Queensland is now undertaking a careful analysis of the causes of the floods. It realizes that a sustainable approach to flood risk management is needed to reduce flood risk. Just recently, in April 2011, the Queensland Government approved the making of a novel and innovative Queensland Coastal Plan under the Coastal Act and the Sustainable Planning Act 2009. The plan is based on a risk assessment and limits development in areas prone to storm surges. It requires communities at risk from cyclones to draw up adaptation and risk reduction plans.

Going forward, the state faces the same questions as other regions that have been struck by disastrous floods:

  • What is the right balance between traditional flood management (focusing on defensive structural measures) and integrated watershed management (focusing on soft solutions, environmental restoration and more space for rivers)?
  • How can the reconstruction plans and spatial planning policies be combined with an overall approach to sustainable watershed management?
  • Should new development (building of houses, roads, and agriculture infrastructure) be restricted in flood prone areas?

Queensland is tackling these questions with the self-declared main goal of building a “stronger and more resilient Queensland”. This is good news for the state’s citizens and also for those many tourists who come to Queensland to experience the famed barrier off the state’s marvelous coastline.

What are your thoughts on the questions above?


Henrike Brecht

Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist

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