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Cost of Queensland floods made worse by government policy on land-use planning and population

This year many Australians may wish they had a backyard to grow food in. Already impoverished by rising costs for rent, land and power, this year we will see food go through the roof as the impact of the floods in Queensland and Northern New South Wales carries through to the supermarkets and then to interest rates on mortgages and other loans. And, since so many of us rely on jobs in the cities originally generated by the production, transport and packaging of food from the country, unemployment will make things worse. When Australians find that their wages no longer cover the cost of food this year, perhaps more will understand why there are so many articles on this website protesting about the loss of backyard and the rise of Food Inc.

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The point is that, if most of us still had access to a backyard with fruit trees and a vegetable patch, and a neighbour with a paddock and a few animals, we simply would not run the same risk of starving, given a disaster or two, as we will if population growth continues and the cost of living outpaces the value of wages and the availability of paid work.

Bangladesh, Australia

Australians are used to responding to the news of devastating floods in third world countries, such as Bangladesh, almost annually. We read of many lives lost and crops lost, then of food shortage and disease.[1] More people have been drowned in Bangladesh floods[2] than have been drowned in the Queensland floods, although Bangladesh has recently made progress with strategies for evacuating populations.

Floodplains covered by houses in an elitist economy with an irresponsible government

In Queensland, Australia, land-speculation has taken precedence over prudence and flood-plains have been covered with houses. Local laws meant until very recently that property owners could sue local councils for lost potential profits if they were prohibited from clearing and developing land, notably farmland. The Queensland Government encourages land speculation at all levels and places pressure to develop new land for more intensive settlement by vigorously encouraging interstate and international immigration. The results are predictable and many tragedies could have been avoided:

"Major flooding causing inundation of large areas, isolating towns and disrupting road and rail links occurs on average about every ten years somewhere in the South-East Queensland region. Smith (1998) estimated that around 35% of the buildings at risk from flooding in Australia are located in Queensland, with 21% being in the South-East Queensland region. The large numbers of buildings at risk of flooding in South-East Queensland is exacerbated by the absence of Statewide floodplain management regulations which might typically aim to preclude residential development in areas subject to flooding up to the 1% AEP (100 year ARI) level. In Queensland such regulations are left to individual Local Government Authorities (LGAs) to establish." (Source: Miriam Middelmann, Bruce Harper and Rob Lacey, "Cost of Flooding" in "Chapter 9: Flood Risks", at

The flooded area in Queensland and NSW is many times larger than the whole of Bangladesh.


Because Queensland/Northern New South Wales produce far more food and fuel (coal) for local and overseas consumption than Bangladesh, the impact of destroyed crops and interruptions to mining by the floods will be massive. [3]

"The state government estimates 100 million dollars a day is being lost in coal exports with floodwaters disrupting operations at at least 40 coal mines - and the damage to industry and agriculture is so severe that banking analysts predict it will hurt the nation's gross domestic product." (Source: "The soaring financial cost of the floods," SBS, 6 January 2011,

Damage to personal property and assets will be formidable, and questions are likely to be raised by insurers where residences have been built on floodplains. People will be traumatised for many years by their losses and experiences in these floods. Some may never recover their emotional well-being.

Agribusiness and the real-estate economy have deprived us of life-saving options:

James Sinnamon wrote in "How to make our agricultural sector sustainable," in 2008,

"The government needs to control the activities of any sector where they threaten the viability of other sectors, particularly vital sectors like food production. To risk severe social disruption for short-term profit might make sense to corporations, but it is the duty of governments to mitigate corporate excesses and to direct and balance activities so that the community is buffered and major conflicts are avoided.

... If incomes to be earned from sustainable farming practices are low in comparison to those to be earned by working in the city or in mines, then we need to consider whether those economic activities are sustainable."

Indeed. This year many Australians may wish they had a backyard to grow food in. Already impoverished by rising costs of rent, land and power, this year Australians will see food go through the roof as the impact of the floods carries through to the supermarkets. And, since so many of us rely on jobs in the cities originally generated by the production, transport and packaging of food from the country, unemployment will make things worse. When Australians find that their wages no longer cover the cost of food this year, perhaps more will understand why there are so many articles on this website protesting about the loss of backyard and the rise of Food Inc.

How will they feel about the heroic marketers of a big population for Australia when we cannot meet our own food needs, let alone earn export income to pay for our imports?

Aggressively imposed government policies, such as paving over market gardens close to city, as described in "Vic Gov to trash Melbourne's water recycling market gardens for quick bucks in thirsty new suburbs,")and concentrating agriculture into what amount to 'agribusiness zones' - see "Orwellian Waterworks: big-agribusiness and Victorian Gov") by removing local individual capacity to supplement food production, have left Australians virtually defenseless against food shortage, particularly in the case of disasters affecting the national economy. This officially encouraged chicken now comes home to roost with the destruction of agricultural produce we rely on by this week's 'biblical' floods in Queensland and Northern New South Wales.

Queensland flooding and climate change

There are many historic accounts of flooding in the area currently affected. See a collection of quotes and figures at, pages 9.16 to 9.31.

And it's not like the government wasn't formally warned that floods will probably get worse in the future:

"CSIRO (2000, 2001) regional modelling experiments show thatQueensland could be warmer with more downpours, with the possibility of more cyclones, stormsurges and flood events. The effect of regional climate change on particular sectors has been examined for rangelands (Howden et al., 1999-a) and for wheat cropping (Howden et al., 1999-b).These studies show, that while it is possible to adapt production systems in many areas, and that some areas may in fact benefit, in other areas production systems could become marginalised and disappear altogether. The blue and green water systems will be driven by global change and human management, and more resilient systems have the best chance of long-term survival." Barney Foran and Franzi Poldi, Future Dilemmas, CSIRO Resource Futures, October 2002, p. 210

But, in fact, the Howard Government which commissioned the report imposed economists who were out of their depth on the scientific team and suppressed the scientists' frank conclusions, which were that it was foolish to keep growing our populations and to keep pushing the boundaries of agriculture and development. In the end, it seemed they got rid of one of the chief scientists, Barney Foran, who wrote a personal report, entitled, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. See the 2002 Four Corners report at

Linsay Tanner and Bangladesh

Reacting to Kelvin Thomson's sane expression of fears as Australia's Federal and State governments continue to engineer faster and faster population growth in Australia, in 2009, the then Treasurer, Linsay Tanner, compared Bangladesh favorably with Australia, suggesting that Australia should have a much bigger population because Bangladesh does ...

"Bangladesh is roughly twice the size of Tasmania, and home to about seven times the population of Australia. If Australia seeks to persuade the rest of the world that we are overpopulated, we will be rightly laughed at,'' Mr Tanner will say, according to a copy of his speech supplied to The Age." Ari Sharp, "Population fear is nonsense: Tanner," The Age, November 13, 2009.

To many people Tanner's comments seemed the ultimate in callousness and absurdity. How could a democracy like Australia have a politician who talks like Tanner? How could a democracy like Australia become like Bangladesh?

Just look at Queensland now.

Beware Disaster Capitalism

The political corruption of the State of Queensland is another factor that will move Queensland and Australia closer to third world status in the wake of natural disasters like this one. If the Queensland government remains true to form, it wferer: floods as an excuse to borrow money internationally and to sell off remaining public assets to private interests. See Naomi Klein's book, The Shock Doctrine, which gives the history of this style of government. It was Klein who coined the term, "disaster capitalism," to describe a widespread form of economics where finance moves in on wounded countries and offers help ... at a terrible price involving asset stripping, dispossession and disenfranchisement.


Each year in Bangladesh about 26,000 km2, (around 18%) of the country is flooded, so far[when?] killing over 5000 people and destroying 7 million homes. During severe floods the affected area may exceed 75% of the country, as was seen in 1998. This volume is 95% of the total annual inflow. By comparison only about 187,000 million m3, of streamflow is generated by rainfall inside the country during the same period. The floods have caused devastation in Bangladesh throughout history, especially during the years 1966, 1987, 1998 and 1988. The 2007 South Asian floods also affected a large portion of Bangladesh.

[2] 2004 Bangladesh 730 killed

[3] 36 000 000 affected; US$ 2 200 000 000 damage (Source:


Queensland is experiencing extreme weather, and the floods could easily be explained as a feed-back system of heating, cooling, more tropical rain and dry weather patterns. As the atmosphere and oceans continue to warm, the ability for more water vapour to be carried in the atmosphere intensifies -leading to more frequent and intense rain.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology 2010 has become Queensland's wettest year on record with the state annual average rainfall being 1109.73 millimetres, more than the 1950 record.

Under Anna Bligh, land clearing continues to erode the countryside and contribute to the risks of flooding. The state government had originally planned to remove more than a thousand trees to widen the highway between Geham and Hampton but will now cut down about five hundred after protests from locals.

Natural Resources Minister Stephen Robertson in April 2009 announced a three-month ban on clearing endangered re-growth forest across Queensland. Rural lobby group AgForce immediately criticised the step, predicting job losses in both the city and rural Queensland. AgForce reiterated that they do not support a regulatory approach to dealing with further changes in vegetation management.

What contribution (if any) urban development could be making to the current river flood levels? Vegetation and rural land use change could also be relevant in comparing 2011 with 19th century floods?

In natural systems undisturbed by urbanisation, agriculture and industry, flood events do release substances such as sediment onto inshore ecosystems. However, with the increase in land used for agriculture, pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus (from fertilisers), chemicals (from pesticides) and increased sediment (from land clearing and over-grazing) have found their way onto the Great Barrier Reef.

Since records began, Australian agriculture has changed or destroyed half the woodlands and forests of the country. More than two-thirds of the remaining forest has been degraded by logging.

WWF raised the alarm over figures showing Australia lost 300,000 hectares to land clearing in the year to 2007, the latest available statistics. This was the equivalent of clearing about 5 million suburban house blocks, Nick Heath of WWF told the media.

Queensland had the worst record, clearing an area equal to the land mass of the Australian Capital Territory. 2009 was the last year of the state’s policy of allowing broad-scale land clearing and its record dwarfed that of the other states combined. Already too much damage, and species losses, have occurred.

In 1974 the heaviest rain was quite concentrated in the first range of hills inland from the coast, either at places like Enoggera Reservoir which don't drain into the upper Brisbane River, or the Gold Coast hinterland which is in a different catchment. This time it looks like the heaviest falls have extended further inland and therefore affected a greater proportion of the upper catchment.

GIS database mapping will need to be compared with the 500K ha per year land clearing rates in Queensland. When are we going to hear how excessive land clearing during the 80' and 90's has contributed to the severity of these floods?

Planners at local council level and possibly legislators at State level across Queensland and NSW must be legally liable for approving building on flood-prone land. Residents and an experienced expert law firm should partner up in a class action and sue the pants off these reckless greedy governments who approve such development.

Last May, the victims of the floods in Roma, Charleville, Bollon and St George took their claims to their insurance companies to court. [Read More].

But it's the government planners who are most liable, who approve the developments up front with full knowledge of an area having a history of flood. Similarly, planners who approve building development on high bushfire prone land need to be also legally liable.

It is as dumb as building below the king tide mark.

Glad to be back; wish it was in more pleasant circumstances.

Suggan Buggan
Snowy River Region
Victoria 3885

Thanks, Tigerquoll. Glad 2 c u back. Boldfacing above is mine. - Editor

A friend living in Brisbane for the last 15-20 years told me the following in a phone conversation tonight . First she told me their house was safe from the floods as it is on high ground and not near the river. When they first moved to Brisbane, friends warned them not to buy in an area below the level of the 1974 floods. Real estate agents contradicted this advice saying that another flood was just "not going to happen" "Don't worry!... " they said My friend and her husband looked at maps of historical flood levels and decided on the basis of the 1974 flood where it was safe to buy. She said properties near the river are extremely expensive- it is the choice spot. Imagine how values will plummet.

She tells me the Wivenhoe dam was only 13 % full until about early 2010 but then there has been rain nearly very day since September 2010. As a result, the ground would be full if water I imagine. Strict water restrictions remained nevertheless e.g No car washing, watering the garden only between 4-6pm She remarked that the regular rain over several months ruined local crops. She said that she thinks the Wivenhoe dam, built partly to flood-proof Brisbane after the 1974 floods has been "full" for a number of months. ("full is in inverted commas as the dam has a capacity for more than 100% ) My friend is amazed that the day before yesterday there was no flood alert at all for Brisbane- and now it is a disaster area, with water rising over the next few hours.

Lastly, her daughter went out tonight locally to buy food and - alas - no milk, no bread, no fresh fruit or vegetables. They are making do with what is in the cupboard.

I agree that removal of trees enhances the severity of flash floods. In the Murphy's Creek flash flood, it seems you had weeks of rain causing totally sodden land, which could absorb no more rain, so when there were 60 solid minutes of rain, the denuded floodplains must have been like a smooth bath-tub. If you look at the area, the Lockyer Valley is a patchwork of treeless crop-sown riverflats with very little absorptive capacity. All around the valley are hills, feeding the river system. You can see Forest Hill bang smack in a river junction on the right and Galton to the left of it and Toowoomba further left. Running down by the center of the valley is a huge long tarmacked highway. I've just written this up as an article here: Comments welcome. Constructive criticism will be incorporated.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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Articles Copyright to the author. Please contact sheila [AT] candobetter org or the editor if you wish to make substantial reproduction or repu

If the native forests hadn't been cleared, likely there would have been less flooding. Not too many people around 220 years old, but perhaps natural history or Aboriginal oral history can lay claim to pre-colonised Queensland having less damaging floods.

The transpiration rate of native forests is considerable. A single mature Eucalypt can consume 7300 litres of water per year. In a forest or plantation with a density of 1100 trees/hectare, the water consumption (transpiration) will be 8,030,000 litres of water per hectare/year. [World Rainforest Movement].

So if the forests had been there, the ground saturation that caused the Queensland flooding (groundwater has nowhere to go except horizontally) would have been markedly reduced; perhaps just swollen rivers rather than flooded ones. Forest and river ecosystems have a delicate balance. Rape the ecosystem and suffer nature's violence!

Lesson: bugger the natural environment (ie rip the guts out of native forests) and wear the consequences, Brisbane!

Take the following CSIRO report from 1999.

Australian Trees for the Rehabilitation of Waterlogged and Salinity-damaged Landscapes

by David T. Bell, CSIRO, 1999. [Australian Journal of Botany]

'The revegetation of damaged agricultural landscapes requires a detailed knowledge of appropriate species and their adaptations to cope with the stresses of environments altered by humans. ...Australian catchments yield little water under natural vegetation, the trees and shrubs being especially resourceful in utilising much of the annual rainfall input. Replacing native, deep-rooted perennial species with annual crops always results in a net gain in catchment water. To redress these problems, cleared landscapes must be partially restored to tree and shrub cover to utilise the excess water remaining when crops are harvested or lie dormant over summer. Upland regions of restored landscapes should be planted to tree crops, particularly those that are luxuriant water users, of commercial value to farmers.

Lowland sites in damaged catchments must be revegetated with trees which have waterlogging adaptations, such as aerenchyma, and tolerance to the products of anaerobic respiration. Areas of waterlogging that are additionally affected by excess salts must have exceptional trees. Australia has a number of native species which are well suited to survive these conditions, produce biomass and utilise excess water, while restricting or coping with the uptake of over-abundant salts.'

The CSIRO should play a key role in land use development, farming and urban planning.

Suggan Buggan
Snowy River Region
Victoria 3885