The risk of extreme floods isn’t receding. Here’s how engineers can help in the short and long term.
It’s a refrain that’s become all too common when talking about natural disasters: “This is a once-in-a-hundred-years event.” But extreme weather events, whether it be bushfires, floods, prolonged heat waves or destructive cyclones, are starting to feel like the norm, rather than the exception.
Floods soaking parts of New South Wales and Queensland illustrate this. After the region experienced severe flooding in early 2020, mere weeks after bushfires ravaged the area, residents and experts alike hoped that the next ‘hundred-years event’ would be decades away, giving the region enough time to recover and prepare.
Yet two years later, Australia’s east coast was once again inundated with record rainfall, submerging large swaths of the region under metres of water.
Southeast Queensland and northern NSW are historically flood-prone areas. However, the problem is becoming more prolific, affecting wider areas of the catchment and occurring more frequently.
“We know these floods have wreaked havoc in many parts of NSW and Queensland, devastating communities and individuals,” said Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans AM.
“We heard heartbreaking accounts from members in towns like Lismore, where the engineering companies they have built over years have been washed away by the floods. There are many damaged areas in need of urgent reassessment and infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt to withstand natural events of this magnitude – events that are occurring more regularly.”
The list of areas affected by severe downpours and flooding continues to grow. The town of Lismore, NSW, was submerged under the worst ever flooding on record, with recovery efforts hampered by continued bouts of rain. Footage from parts of Queensland shows bridges and roads rapidly submerged, with retreating flood waters leaving behind debris and damaged infrastructure. Residents of Sydney suburbs were ordered to evacuate due to forecasts of severe storms, and nearly all dams are at capacity.
After delays in flood response and uncertainty that communities can withstand future deluges, questions have emerged about whether Australia is prepared for the rising incidence of flooding events, as well as what – or who – is required to mitigate future risks.
As Emergency Services Minister Steph Cooke said: “While the rain today may be easing, the risks are not”.
Getting help to those who need it
Calls for short- and long-term solutions to Australia’s flood preparedness have been ringing for years. But these recent floods have made it clear that more funding, research and cross-disciplinary response is required. Alongside emergency services or relief funds, putting the skills of professional engineers to work will be crucial to rebuilding affected communities.
This message is making it mainstream as well. For example, Lismore City Councillor Elly Bird called for help from structural engineers to assist with recovery efforts by assessing buildings for damage.
Engineers have ample skills to help in times of crisis, said Evans. And pro bono engineering work is an excellent way for engineers to help communities throughout NSW and Queensland get back on their feet immediately following extreme floods.
However, she stressed that any assistance should be given in consultation with community members to ensure it’s targeted, helpful and relevant.
“Many groups willingly offer their services pro bono. To have the greatest impact, it’s important that these efforts are directed at the group with the greatest need – and this will not always be obvious to an outsider,” Evans said.
Engineers Australia is currently working with local, state and national coordinating agencies to make sure all offers of help from members are directed to the right communities at the right time, she added.
This includes Resilience NSW, which has been responding to flood rescue and relief efforts across the state for months now. According to a spokesperson for the organisation, engineers who wish to donate their services can reach out to the Resilience NSW team at [email protected].
Collaborating for long-term resilience
Assistance in the short term is crucial, and engineers in Australia have the expertise and knowledge to lend a hand in times of crisis. However, this year’s extreme floods have driven home the point that it’s time to be more proactive about flood prevention and take steps to mitigate the risk of future disasters.
According to Engineers Australia National President and Chair of the Board Dr Nick Fleming, the rising incidence of these extreme events is changing the baseline for engineering design practices.
“What might once have been assessed as a one-in-100-year flood could today be statistically measured as a one-in-30-year flood,” Fleming said.
“The consequence is that much infrastructure that’s designed to withstand one-in-100-year events may no longer meet that design standard.”
As such, the profession needs to become more involved in cross-disciplinary conversations about how to mitigate flood risks to communities and infrastructure, as well as rethink standard design practices. Resilience to extreme floods needs to be the focus, rather than just responding to events as they happen.
“To tackle complex challenges like floods, engineers must work with climate scientists, data scientists, community leaders and town planners, government agencies and communications experts,” Evans said.
“It is only by being immersed in the issue, and not sitting outside the issue, that engineers can have impact at pace and scale.”
According to Fleming, Australian engineers have world-leading skills in flood hydrology and risk assessments – key inputs for resilience. However, whether advice is accepted and acted upon is another question. It’s also important to take a holistic view to resilience practices, he said.
“Climate risk needs to be factored into the planning, approvals and design of all new assets that have economic lives in the order of decades. This means our houses, our commercial and industrial buildings, and public and private infrastructure,” Fleming said.
For him, it comes down to a question of will.
“This involves some tough conversations. But ignoring the issue and kicking the can down the road provides a small short-term benefit to those wishing to avoid the issue,” he said.
“A flood can take out power systems, road and rail networks, communications towers and even the local ATM. Our systems of infrastructure are more interconnected and fragile than most people realise. Best practice not only requires better awareness of the risks, but better and more interconnected risk analysis, response and governance practices.”
Join us this November at the Hydrology & Water Resources Symposium as we discuss current water issues, including the recent NSW and QLD floods, and explore innovations shaping the future of water engineering.
Submit your abstract by Friday 20 May to be considered for inclusion on the program. Find out more here.