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New national flood research centre emerges from the Lismore deluge


Sharlene King
2 October 2018

Emerging from the devastating Cyclone Debbie floodwaters that hit the NSW Northern Rivers town of Lismore 18 months ago is the new National Centre for Flood Research.

Based at Southern Cross University’s Lismore campus and in collaboration with the UNSW Global Water Institute, the National Centre for Flood Research ’s purpose is clear: move beyond the conventional hydrological and engineering considerations of flood management by incorporating the broader impacts on people and ecosystems.

“We’re looking to develop an interdisciplinary approach to flood research, drawing on expertise from around the country and around the world,” said the Centre’s Foundation Director Professor Caroline Sullivan.

“We believe that a whole range of disciplines is important to flood research, with social, economic, legal, ecological, and psychological perspectives all being relevant. We are seeking guidance from both scientific experts and affected communities about what type of flood research is really needed.  For example, people who have lived here in Lismore and the Northern Rivers for over 50 years have a lot of important local knowledge, and on the basis of their experience, they have useful ideas about what should be done before, during and after a flood.

“Any research coming out of a centre like this can provide important insights for other regions, and indeed there is a real potential to support Australia’s contribution to international knowledge on floods and our response to them.”

Professor Sullivan is well-credentialed and well-connected to lead the Centre. Before taking up her current position at Southern Cross, she worked at the Oxford University School of Geography; prior to that she was Head of Water Policy and Management at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, part of the UK government’s Natural Environment Research Council.

Professor Sullivan is an ecological and environmental economist specialising in water management and policy, climate adaptation and valuation of ecosystem services. She has recently served as an expert panel member for the International Union for Forest Research Organisations demonstrating the importance of linking forests and water in land use management. She has also contributed expertise to many other organisations such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, the African Development Bank, UNESCO, the European Union, the World Bank and the World Commission on Dams.

This international experience has enabled Professor Sullivan to consult with a wide range of overseas expertise on the scope and direction of such an interdisciplinary flood research centre. As a result, a number of key experts have agreed to join the centre’s Scientific Advisory Board. One of these is Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell from the University of Oxford, the founder of the UK Flood Hazard Research Centre, which has for decades provided crucial support to the various government agencies in the UK (and elsewhere) that have responsibility for flood mitigation and management. 

“Professor Penning-Rowsell is widely regarded as one of the gurus of flood research in the UK, and what is fascinating is that he carried out a study of flooding in Lismore over 30 years ago,” Professor Sullivan said.

“Working with Professor David Ingle Smith from the Australian National University, they examined post-flood responses after the record 1974 flood, producing a report ‘Self-help flood hazard mitigation: the economics of house-raising in Lismore NSW Australia’ (1987).”

More recently, Professor Penning-Rowsell has been the lead author of an important report, adopted as one of the basic manuals for managing the economic dimensions of flood risk in the UK, Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management: A Manual for Economic Appraisal.

To celebrate the establishment of this new National Centre for Flood Research, an inaugural symposium is being held on Tuesday October 2. For this event, Professor Sullivan has gathered together a wide range of expertise to discuss what is needed in flood research. These include local council representatives from Queensland and New South Wales, citizen flood impact groups, and expertise from the Bureau of Meteorology, SES, as well as hydrologists and scientists.

“Learning from diverse perspectives is the key to successful adaptive management in an uncertain world. We think that this flood symposium will support an important exchange of ideas between experts, practitioners and the public, helping us to design a cross-cutting research programme with practical outcomes,” Professor Sullivan said.

“Overseas events have demonstrated why it’s essential to address floods in an interdisciplinary way. We believe that working collaboratively across the disciplines, we can deliver useful, practical insights which can provide real support for flood affected regions and communities.

“Floods don’t matter if people are not involved, so it is clear that people must be at the centre of flood research. Knowledge about flooding in a region like Lismore goes back many generations, and is documented both in historical records and Indigenous stories. By combining this kind of local knowledge with scientific expertise can provide novel insights into how we can both reduce the impacts of floods, and respond to them better when they happen.  

“The one certainty we do have about floods is that they will definitely continue to happen, and we need to be better prepared.”

Southern Cross University’s leadership of the National Centre for Flood Research initiative is supported by its ‘at world standard’ or above in 24 key research areas in the Excellence in Research for Australia report, including flood-relevant disciplines including: Environmental Science and Management; Forestry Science; Crop and Pasture Production; Geochemistry; Soil Science; Ecology; Fisheries Science; Medical and Health Sciences; and Civil Engineering.

The University offers a range of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Coastal Systems Engineering; Environmental Science; Marine Science and Management; and Science.