Resilient and Sustainable Rebuilt – What does a sustainable recovery look like after the NSW and Queensland floods

As of Thursday 10 March, the Insurance Council of Australia reported over 118.000 flood-related claims across Queensland and New South Wales, of which 95.000 (81%) relate to property with the remainder relating to 19.000 motor vehicles (16%) and some other (3%). The total value of the claims is almost $1.8 billion. This doesn’t include the claims of those not insured in the “flood region” as they can’t afford flood insurance. In comparison that is 50% of all new dwelling reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2021. People have not only lost their homes and belongings, but a whole region is economically bankrupted.  The Government must surely recognize the effects of climate change and act on it with a long-term plan for a sustainable recovery to make the region and the homes more resilient to floods.

As it happened

A week ago, on Saturday February 26th we touched down in Brisbane airport to start our new life in Australia. We immigrated from The Netherlands and it was the start of our adventure. It rained and some more rain was forecasted. The next morning, we drove down to Evans Head, NSW. A quiet coastal village close to Lismore to start our new life. By then the rain was torrential and we could barely drive the Pacific Highway. A couple of hours later both Brisbane and Ballina airports were closed down due to floodings.  

The next morning, Monday February 28th we woke up in a totally different world. Lismore was flooded and our friends who live in New Italy on the other side of the Pacific Highway were flooded in. Tuesday morning the water from Lismore flooded down and the town of Woodburn was completely flooded, followed by the lower regions of South Ballina.   

Evans Head was cut off from the rest of the world as the roads going in and out were flooded.  

This said, The Lismore and Northern Rivers region is no stranger to flooding as it flooded as recently as 2017. This event though is thought to be the worst to hit the town since 1954, with over 700mm of rain falling in 30 hours. Around 300,000 people live in areas subject to evacuation orders and now have to recover their homes and businesses. 

Welcome to Australia

That’s what most of my Australian friends said. Everything out here is extreme, whether it is bush fires, draughts or floodings. But this flooding in this region was the worst flooding ever recorded. I’ve been working remotely for SDG Align for almost two years now and have followed the news on the bushfires and the draughts. We’ve been writing about “extreme weather conditions” and the effects of “El Nino”, but to be in the middle of it all is somewhat completely different.  

What do you do? Well, you support the local community and help as much as you can. Sort clothes in the evacuation center and help to clear houses as part of the “mud army”.  I’m very proud of all my four kids helping out just as they arrived in their new home country.  

Sustainable recovery

In the middle of this all I try to make sense of what I see. Volunteers clear out houses and just stack everything at the side of the street.  

Where do all the materials go? There seems to be no plan other than rip out all the walls out and dry what’s left of the wooden infrastructure to prevent mold get in the ceilings, walls and floors. Everything is thrown out on the streets, whether it is a refrigerator, paint, food, steel, beds, mattresses or plastics. 

Where is all this going? Well? Straight to the tip I’m told by the locals. A big hole in the ground, cover it up and be done with it. At least, that’s what happened in earlier floods. There are large mountains of garbage outside of Lismore from the last floods. Dangerous materials leaking straight into the ground. Remember this is a rural area with herds of cattle grazing to supply beef and milk to the nation. That day I got a message from Service NSW with instructions for cleaning up and how to seperate waste for the tip….. I wonder if it was too late.

Sustainable and resilient rebuild

If there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this it is for the future. I just arrived in Australia with four kids in the age between 10 and 18. We’ve immigrated for the beauty of nature, the lifestyle and the people. We saw, and still see opportunity in all this for a sustainable future.  

Imagine the impact of a conversation about change. Imagine if we can collaborate as a built environment industry and teach the future of comfortable, green and smart living in schools and educate the next generation of architects, designers, sparkies, tradies, carpenters, fencers and farmers to rethink the way things are done. The way houses are built in this region hasn’t changed over the past 100 years.  

  • Sure, there must be better ways of building?  
  • Sure, we can be smarter with materials?  
  • Sure, we can learn lessons to build more efficient and even resilient for cyclones, floods and torrential rains? Government has to step in to make flood insurance more affordable and minimize impact of climate change. Corporations have to commit to the SDG’s 
  • Sure, we can take into account energy consumption, water management and waste management when think about rebuilding. There is opportunity here for local business AND government to think about Sustainable Development, while we do it.
  • Sure, we can spark social initiatives to help out those who do not have the funds to make sustainable investments in their homes for the greater good? There are plenty of people and business out there with the good ideas and the knowledge to build more resilient, carbon neutral and sustainable homes.  

Now thousands of houses have to be renewed, rebuilt or even relocated. It is a change to start over again, with the support of the government and the financial institutions that have to take responsibility for the community they work for.  

It is the opportunity to embrace the Sustainable Development Goals and incorporate Society and the Environment in everything we do, because there is one thing I’ve learned and saw with my own eyes. Mother Nature is boss around here and we need to adapt to her if we want to keep enjoying the beautiful outdoor lifestyle we over here for. We will have to collaborate and do it together as none of these challenges can be faced in isolation. We have to work together as citizens, business and governments to build a sustainable future for next generations. 

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