18th of April 2024, 3:05pm
Legislative Council of Victoria, Echuca regional sitting

The torrential rainfall that hit Victoria in October 2022 led to one of the most devastating and prolonged natural disasters seen in this state. We watched on as already brimming rivers and saturated catchments failed to contain the unprecedented volumes of rain, bursting their banks and inundating communities across the state.

The damage was extensive, impacting 63 of Victoria’s 79 municipalities and affecting thousands of Victorian families, businesses, producers and community organisations. Approximately 25 per cent of the north-central region was inundated. All river systems within the region experienced major flooding, with the Campaspe River experiencing its highest flood on record.

We know that many of our rural and regional communities were still reeling from recent flood events as well as bushfires and of course the pandemic. I want to acknowledge the impact of the floods on those regional communities in northern and central Victoria; the residents whose homes were flooded, too many of whom still wait for those homes to be rebuilt; the farmers who saw crops destroyed and livestock and other resources lost or ruined; the traditional owners who were excluded from their country and saw their cultural heritages damaged. I want to acknowledge that the trauma and loss experienced within these communities still endures for so many people.

As the deputy chair of the Environment and Planning Committee I heard many, many heart-wrenching accounts from community members as part of the inquiry into the 2022 flood event in Victoria. But we also heard extraordinary stories of bravery, of generosity, of dedication and of resilience. There were many examples, but I would like to highlight a local one.

During the hearings held here in August we heard about the work undertaken by the Campaspe Shire Council staff during the floods, 40 per cent of whom were directly impacted by that flood. I am going to slightly paraphrase the transcript from that day of hearings, but it goes: ‘Those who could showed up every day to support the community, many juggling multiple roles and working for days on end fatigued and without adequate breaks.

During the event, which lasted many weeks, our staff performed a myriad of roles: setting up, maintaining and monitoring the pumps across the shire, which were everywhere, 24 hours a day; clearing drains; closing roads and maintaining road access where possible. We forget about animals during floods, but council staff supported animal management. Council staff established and maintained 24-hour relief centres for 35 days, rotating staff from across the organisation into those roles.’

And again I paraphrase: ‘We managed the equivalent of 30 years of waste in 60 days in our waste facilities. We sandbagged our critical assets. We began the secondary impact assessments. We started damage assessments of all the critical infrastructure. There were about 33 bridges that I remember hearing of at one stage. We responded to community requests across the municipality from very anxious and distraught residents as well. They needed that support and information.’ Those council staff got no break – likewise so many of our first responders and community members, who responded so gallantly to the events that were unfolding around them.

The committee heard many similar accounts from across the state of community members pulling together, working day and night, helping each other and keeping one another safe. It was truly humbling.

But the committee also heard many accounts of the inadequacies of the state’s emergency response: of the confusion, of poor communications, of alerts that were supposed to warn residents of incoming floodwater that came either too late or not at all or in some cases were simply wrong.

In my own region there is the township of Maribyrnong, and on the night of the floods people there went to bed having received a text saying that the floodwaters were receding – only to awaken at 3 am with the water lapping at their doors. The text they had received was simply wrong, and as a result residents were literally forced to flee and some 600 households in the Maribyrnong township were flooded – as were multiple retirement units at the Rivervue retirement village, which was not even on the emergency management plan.

The committee has spent more than a year examining these failures and grappling with what actions need to be taken to better prepare for and mitigate against future flood events. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many community members, expert witnesses and of course the secretariat that serviced the committee so it could pull together the diverse range of issues and hopefully come back with a meaningful response to address some of these issues. But as we know, these events will continue to be experienced.

While there are immediate and short-term actions to be considered, and these will be addressed in the final report of the committee into the 2022 flood event in Victoria, which will be completed in the coming months, there are long-term issues to be reckoned with as well. We know that these types of events can no longer be realistically categorised as ‘once in a decade’ or ‘once in a century’ or ‘once in a millennium’. With the inevitable acceleration of climate change, these events will be more frequent and more devastating. So how do we prepare for the inevitable consequences of climate change, the full impacts of which will be measured not in months or even years but in decades?

On the one hand we can expect longer periods of drought. On this, the driest continent in the world, water will be an increasingly scarce resource. How do we prepare for this? We need much more water storage if we are to survive extended harsh periods of drought, and theoretically we could always build more dams. But of course there is an inherent tension in this proposal, because we know that extended and more intense flood events will follow those droughts, leading to the rivers and catchments overflowing and potentially inundating more communities. We also need to consider the imminent rise in sea levels and the impact that will have on housing and infrastructure, on food production, on health and on basic sanitation. For example, it would only take a very slight rise in sea levels to inundate both major Melbourne sewerage plants, rendering them useless.

These are challenges that the Environment and Planning Committee will consider in its inquiry into climate resilience and adaptation that commences immediately after this flood inquiry is completed. We will examine the risks that climate change poses to our state’s built environment and infrastructure and the impact these risks will have on all Victorians.

We will be looking at our preparedness to deal with these impacts, the barriers to upgrading infrastructure to become more resilient to the impacts and our readiness for future climate disaster events.

Climate change is no longer a calamity that will take place in the distant future – something for future generations to deal with. It is happening right now, and it is the biggest threat we have ever faced on this planet.

The scale of the challenge can be overwhelming, but it is incumbent upon government to take action, to heed the lessons learned from the events such as the 2022 floods and to find ways to better prepare for and mitigate against the severity of future natural disasters.


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