Australia must have a “tough conversation” about where people should build their homes, Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud says, as historic flooding in NSW forces thousands to evacuate just months after battling bushfires and heatwaves.
Some of the areas underwater in Sydney’s west and the NSW mid-north coast on Monday were, just a year ago, sweltering through 50-degree days or cleaning up after the Black Summer bushfires.
“We can’t keep putting people in harm’s way,” Mr Littleproud said, flagging a “tough conversation” ahead about how climate change might affect homeowners.
However, despite admitting Australia faced more “natural disasters in the future”, Mr Littleproud said accelerating climate action wasn’t the answer.
The floods reached south-east Queensland on Sunday, with heavy rain on the Gold Coast bringing an emergency alert for three catchments.
Rising floodwaters that have inundated large parts of the NSW mid-north coast are forcing entire communities to pack their bags and flee.
The Bureau of Meteorology expects Monday to bring the worst flooding to the Hawkesbury-Nepean River, north-west of Sydney, since November 1961.
- Click here to see the full list of schools affected
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has encouraged people in affected areas to access disaster relief payments of $1000 for adults and $400 for each child by calling 180 22 66.
“It’s another testing time for our country and there have been a lot of them, and particularly in these areas that are affected by floods at the moment, particularly outside of Sydney,” he told Sydney’s 2GB radio on Monday.
“These are very, very serious and very severe storms and floods and it’s a very complex weather system too,” he said.
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‘We can’t keep putting people in harm’s way’
Scenes of uprooted houses floating in floodwaters and submerged properties have raised questions about whether some people are living in clear danger zones, such as low-lying valleys that are prone to flooding.
Mr Littleproud said state and local governments needed to urgently devise new rules for planning and developments, based on recommendations from the bushfires royal commission.
“In the natural disaster royal commission, there were clear recommendations around planning, and making sure particularly state and local governments get this right,” he said.
“It’s a tough conversation but it’s one that I think we owe, not only for those 34 lives lost in Black Summer, but for natural disasters in the future, that we leave a legacy.”
However, he said fast-tracking further climate change action wasn’t the answer.
“We’ve got a great record and this self-loathing that we continue to knock ourselves around and saying we don’t do enough, let me tell you, there are, out of the 27 EU states, only 21 of them will meet their 2030 commitment,” he said.
“Australia has a proud record – a strong record – and we should be damn proud of it.”
Labor’s disaster management spokesman, Murray Watt, also backed a re-examination of how and where homes are built.
“One of the big discussions that’s yet to be had, is where people build and the kind of houses that are being built,” he told The New Daily outside Parliament on Monday.
“It’s a question that arises in bushfire-prone areas, making sure people aren’t building too close to forests and are using appropriate materials for their houses, and now there have to be some questions about whether it’s the right thing to be allowing people to build on floodplains.”
Climate change expert Professor Jamie Pittock, from the Australian National University, said evacuation orders for the recently developed Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley, north-west of Sydney, could have been avoided.
“The Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley is very dangerous, very flood-prone and that’s because there are some geographical choke points that cause large floods to back up over some of the inhabited areas,” he told ABC TV on Monday.
“There is around 70,000 residents on the flood plain that are in harm’s way and the NSW government has plans to move another 130,000 people into this area by 2050.”
Senator Watt said flood-affected areas in Sydney’s west were experiencing “a sense of deja vu” a year after they endured bushfires.
“Some of the very areas now being impacted by floods were some of the worst areas by bushfires,” he said.
“I think it’s a clear reminder that, with climate change, we are likely to see these kinds of disasters more often and more intensely.”
Senator Watt said there remained “questions for the government” regarding a failure to use billions of dollars previously allocated to disaster mitigation funds.
He has hammered the government for not dipping into a $4 billion pot of cash ostensibly dedicated to helping communities prepare for future disasters. The government maintains it has been spending money in this area – just not from that specific envelope of funding.
“We’ve now been through two disaster seasons where the government has not spent a single cent form this $4 billion fund,” Senator Watt said.