National Institute for Flood Resilience

Launched at Southern Cross University - 5 February 2019

I would like to follow both custom and respectful practice and to acknowledge the traditional custodians and owners of the land on which we work, meet, study and research—the Bundjalung Nation—where we are conducting this important event today. I am mindful that within and without the concrete and steel of buildings the Land always was, and always will be, Aboriginal Land.

And that is an extremely important starting point for today’s event.

For it is the case that extreme inundations of water have been with the Indigenous Nations of Australia for hundreds of generations. And we have much to learn in the area of Indigenous Knowledge in relation to caring for country, planting appropriate foliage and living with land so as to minimise the danger and the destruction of exteme weather events such as flooding.

And how poignant it is that as we launch a research and a public endeavour which is full of hope and solutions for the future, we do so at a time when our brothers and sisters in the Townsville region of north Queensland are struggling with the worst floods in living memory… It is a time which causes us to express our sorrow and commiseration and it is also a time when we express our gratitude to Federal Labor and to the Honourable Tanya Plibersek for having the vision and commitment to back this very new approach to Flood research, mitigation and response. There is no doubt that it is needed.

That is one of the aims of our newly-launched National Institute for Flood Resilience. It is not just about dams or weirs. It is not just about roads signs or bridges. It is about much more. It is about the fact that the most successful flood-prone nations in the world—such as the Netherlands—are famously not building higher dikes or levees. Instead, they are adopting a total catchment approach to water systems: building deviations in the headwaters of rivers to sheet water in other directions; planting more and more trees and water-resistant plants on watercourses; changing traditional canals to meandering designs; and capturing as much storm-water as possible in enormous underground storage facilities for reuse and future irrigation.

In a country such as the Netherlands, almost 90% of public investment in the area of floods is spent on prevention and mitigation efforts and only about 10% is spent on recovery costs. In Australia, the ratio is reversed: less than 10% of taxpayers’ funds are spent on preparation, education, research and prevention efforts and 90% of funds are spent on emergency recovery costs.

This clearly is not working.

With the inauguration of this National Institute, we seek to start to redress that imbalance. And we are conscious of our incredibly privileged position in doing so. We take nothing for granted. We live in a country which, simultaneously, can suffer from bushfires in Tasmania and Victoria; dramatic drought and fish-kills in far western NSW and unprecedented flooding in North Queensland—all in the same week and at the same time.

Few nations on earth have a better reason to invest publicly in this area. Few countries could bring to bear through the university system and via a total systems approach to this pernicious problem. Bear in mind this fact: nearly 80% of the cost of all natural disasters in the world since 1970 has been associated with floods, whether caused meteorologically (as we currently see in Townsville and as we experienced in this very city of Lismore in April of 2017) and hydrologically, as when tsunamis or other inundations strike.

And just remember: four days after the Lismore floods of 2017—which overtopped the weir in the city at more than 11.4 metres—over 450 residents of the city were in this very building at 7am in the morning. For those who had lost everything, we said, come to this campus. We are you and you are us. The evacuation centre operated in our gymnasium and associated building for over 10 days. All the rules went by the wayside. For those who had pets, we said ‘Bring them with you’. For those who smoked, we found a way. For those who had lost their livelihoods and businesses, we said ‘Set up here. Use this campus. Use our electricity. Use our internet. Get back on your feet.’

Many small businesses and NGOs did so.

We did these things because that is what a public purpose university should do. Our mission is to translate what is in the backyard into the front-yard and then to the rest of the world.

That is what we are doing. And that is what we are announcing here today.

We are talking about a many-sided approach to floods. First, there is the science of Flood Resilience in such areas as soil chemistry, water management, forestry, smart sensor technology, hydrogeology and coastal systems engineering.

Second, we are deploying an array of social sciences, such as those of psychology, safety science, history, Indigenous Knowledge and Early Childhood Education.

Third, and importantly, we have the essential health science aspects of public health, mental health, water-borne illnesses, counselling and cross-cultural health.

So, in the end, while this is about the environment it is also very much about people.

For example: why do Australian teenagers persist in boogie-boarding down flooded drains? Why do drivers persist in attempting to ‘play chicken’ with flooded roadways, even when they are officially closed? Why do people insist on sleeping in flood-prone campsites when they are warned by SES officers to leave? These are fundamentally human factor questions. And they can be addressed and solved.

So the work we undertake at Southern Cross will address all of this in a cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary way. We will start with the rigour of prevention in all of its dimensions and we will drive that ‘systems approach’ to actual, tangible results.

We will have research on flood estimation, prediction and measurement. We will undertake research on flood preparedness and prevention using the best examples drawn from anywhere in the world.

And we will incorporate the Northern Rivers Flood Response Centre alongside our Southern Cross Centre for Flood Research. Preparation and Response. Side by side. We will have educative modelling for schools; prevention and safety regimes; collaboration with the local SES and other services. All of this will be on our campus. And—above all—we will get results. This will be ‘public good’ research in its broadest sense.

Knowledge transfer goes in both directions here. From Citizens to Science and from Science to Citizens.

And the impact will be tangible and high—both in terms of scholarly outputs and community benefits.

We cannot keep on repeating the Lismore floods of 2017; the Townsville floods of 2019. There has to be a better way. And this is it.

I am so grateful to Janelle Saffin, to Caroline Sullivan—the Establishment Director of our research centre—to Ken Doust and to my wonderful colleague and co-author of this proposal, Ben Roche. I am especially grateful to the scores of academic researchers who have put their hands up to participate in this centre—from forest science experts like Jerry Vanclay to ground-water scientists like Isaac Santos. I thank our Chancellor, Nick Burton Taylor, for his unstinting support, and I recognise the leadership of our past and future Deputies Vice Chancellor (Research), Susan Nancarrow and Mary Spongberg.

Most of all, can I please recognise and thank—once again, Luke Sheehy and the Office of Tanya Plibersek and - of course - Tanya herself. We could not do this without you. And with your backing, we will see it through.

Adam Shoemaker
Vice Chancellor