After the flood

Posted on March 6, 2011

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During the recent floods, national media organisations turned to universities for commentary on the immediate and long-term implications of the disaster.

Among people consulted was Ben Gawne, Director of the Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre in La Trobe’s Department of Environmental Management & Ecology at the Albury-Wodonga campus.

Writing in The Age, Dr Gawne said cycles of wetting and drying were emblematic of Australian rivers.

‘Understanding this should mean that we don’t forget the importance of water to our way of life, but that we start responding to the flood as part of our response to the next drought.’

Disastrous in their immediate impact, he says floods also provide ‘a once in a life-time chance’ to assess agricultural, economic and environmental impacts that may shape the well-being of our nation for generations to come.’

For example, learning more about the many negative and positive impacts of drought and flood on our food bowls is one obvious area of scientific concern.  There are also impacts on fish stocks to consider, at a time when world fisheries are dwindling.

He says floods are an important environmental ‘driver’ and represent an ‘amazing opportunity’ to understand their role and benchmark what might be achieved from environmental flows – knowledge that could be of great benefit over the next decade.

‘Unfortunately we are missing an opportunity to learn from these events,’ says Dr Gawne. ‘This is due to current funding arrangements for research that lack a strategic approach, so at a time like this it is difficult to get the work done in the time required to inform future policies and action.’

Dr Gawne says the high nutrient-run off into estuaries and oceans might be good for marine life, which could benefit crab, shrimp and flathead industries. On the other hand, the same nutrients may adversely affect major tourist attractions such as the Great Barrier Reef, encouraging algal growth at the expense of coral.

While floods lead to a major boost in the health of river systems, they have also been associated with broad scale “black water” events which have been implicated in the death of many fish in the Murray Darling system.

Groundwater expert John Webb says initially floods perform a useful service, washing salt from our rivers.  However, interviewed by Philip Adams on ABC Radio National, he warned once they pass, it will be critical for Australian farmers to refocus on the underlying challenge of salinity. 

This was a big problem late last century, one that has been off the agenda during a decade of drought, see full story: ‘Salt in old wounds’.

Senior lecturer in viticultural science, Judith Tisdall, was called upon for her expertise in the grape industry. She warned that grape growers – already reeling from years of drought, the global financial crisis and competition from New Zealand – may see their crops suffer for at least another two years as a result of the great wet.

The vines themselves are hardy and generally survive floods, she says, but heavy rains and flood had caused powdery mildew to become rampant in many vineyards, destroying much of the crop. 

With roads to vineyards cut by water and mud, and floating debris making it difficult to get into vineyards, it was hard to control the fungus with sprays.

‘What’s more, buds for the following year’s growth start to set before harvest, so the effects can impact on the industry for two years in a row.’

Legal researcher Rachel Carter received extensive media coverage for her call for affordable flood insurance. She said the floods highlighted major market failure by the insurance industry, and chronic lack of action by government to tackle this problem.

‘Increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters cost Australia billions of dollars each year,’ she says. ‘Yet our insurance system is grossly inadequate to deal with such devastation.

‘Many people in areas traditionally prone to flooding are precluded from having access to insurance,’ she says. ‘Yet flood victims are among the most vulnerable people in society.’

Miss Carter says the government has the power to alter this situation, and to alleviate the financial burden of flood damage on individuals.

She views the government’s disaster levy as a response to the immediate crisis, but says it’s ‘half-baked’ in terms of a long-term solution. She believes there are better alternatives to deal with economic losses from the flooding in Queensland and Victoria and the devastation caused by Cyclone Yasi.

However, she is more optimistic about an approach to be put before the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments, based on a submission from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute to which she has contributed. 

On an individual level, she says the controversy generated by her comments caused many people, especially in flood-prone areas, to take a good look at their insurance cover!