Government inaction in the face of a warming climate, developer greed and poor planning are to blame for the catastrophic impacts of recent floods in New South Wales.
Twenty-two people died in the floods in February and March on Australia’s east coast.
Despite knowing for decades that climate change would make extreme weather events worse, successive state and federal governments have refused to take meaningful action.
The new federal Labor government’s inadequate emissions reduction target of 43% on 2005 levels by 2030 and its continued support for fossil fuel projects illustrates this.
The former Coalition government was also warned against building in increasingly risky flood-prone areas.
A developer- and state government-led push has recklessly endangered the well-being and lives of thousands of people by building in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley in Sydney’s west — the most flood-exposed area in NSW.
NSW Labor introduced the euphemistically named Resilient Valley Resilient Communities Flood Risk plan in 2006, which allowed development in areas on the “one-in-100-year” flood level — a measure of flood probability used by town planners to determine where houses should be built. Generally, most local councils mandate building above this level.
Developers have lobbied for years to build in flood-prone areas. One way is to apply for land to be rezoned for residential or commercial uses — to build homes and businesses in the path of floods.
A group of companies wanted to develop Penrith Lakes — a 2000-hectare-old quarry site on the Nepean River in Western Sydney — into a tourist, residential and industrial zone. This is despite the whole site being under the probable maximum flood level, and much of it under the one-in-100-year level.
After pressure from developers, the NSW government changed its planning laws in 2018 to allow higher density residential development on parts of the site. They then extended the industrial zone further onto flood-prone land by 13 hectares in 2020.
Historical development combined with years of further rezonings to allow building on flood-prone land mean that 5000 people now live below the one-in-100-year flood level in the Hawkesbury-Nepean area.
Tens of thousands of homes are planned for the area — many on flood-prone land.
John Handmer, who leads RMIT University’s Centre for Risk and Community Safety, argued in 2008 that “flood risk is characterised by private sector profit while the costs are borne by the public sector, individuals and small business”.
The government’s commitment to helping the private sector profit was illustrated when planning minister Anthony Roberts, at the behest of developers, ditched requirements to consider flood risk before building new homes, two weeks after they came into effect in March.
Weeks later, he scrapped a draft environmental planning law that aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during and after the construction of new buildings.
He announced the decision at a lunch organised by developer lobby group Urban Taskforce Australia on April 5, where he told developers: “I’ve heard you — the government’s heard you.”
Roberts’ decision to choose developers’ profits over people’s lives is typical of the neoliberal planning system.
“The planning minister could issue a state planning policy tomorrow and put a moratorium on new flood plain residential development,” Greens MP David Shoebridge said in March, “but developers hold so much power over state governments that they won’t even discuss it”.
Avoiding the problem
Instead of stopping development on flood-prone land, the government proposed technocratic, inequitable “solutions” to flooding.
The government’s proposal to raise the Warragamba Dam wall by up to 14 metres would inundate hundreds of Aboriginal cultural sites and threaten the unique ecology of the world heritage-listed Blue Mountains National Park.
Local councils, First Nations people and environmental groups opposed the proposal.
Even a parliamentary inquiry recommended last October that the government “not proceed with the Warragamba Dam wall raising project [and] pursue alternative floodplain management strategies instead”.
Despite support from developers and Liberal ministers, including Premier Dominic Perrottet, scientific analysis revealed that raising the dam wall would have limited value in lowering flood risk — especially considering the predicted rise in intensity and frequency of flooding due to climate change.
The dam wall proposal has been used by developers and the government to justify building in flood-prone areas, under the illusion of safety.
Clydesdale Property Development Group bought a 216-hectare property — nearly all of which is flood-prone and more than half under the one-in-100-year flood level — in Marsden Park for $45 million in 2014.
Six months after the Mike Baird-led Coalition announced the Warragamba Dam wall proposal in 2016, Clydesdale sold the property for $139 million — making a profit of $94 million.
Development was approved for the estate and lots have been sold.
Australian National University environmental researcher Jamie Pittock wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that “The NSW government should abandon its dam-raising plan and stop allowing new development in harm’s way”.
“Regulators should not allow flood-destroyed infrastructure to be rebuilt as it was.”