The near simultaneous floods in Brazil and Brisbane provide a contrast in terms of their impact (and media coverage). Brisbane is experiencing huge property damage, but relatively little loss of life – while Brazil is experiencing large loss of life, without as much property damage.
In Brazil experienced much smaller area flooded, but due to the rapidity, terrain and vulnerability of people much more death. Recent reports state the death toll exceeds 500 people, making it Brazil’s most deadly natural disaster (see also BBC). The Christian Science Monitor writes:
Less than a year ago, just a few miles from where this week’s devastation occurred, 160 people died when houses built on top a hillside garbage dump gave way. Another 250 were killed by mudslides in other parts of the state.
In São Paulo, the two rivers that ring the city routinely burst their banks causing traffic chaos and some neighborhoods spent several weeks under water last year.
Government officials vowed they would review the current procedures that ensure much more money is spent on cleaning up disasters rather than stopping them from happening, with leading Civil Defense official Humberto Vianna telling the government news agency: “[Our] logic needs to be inverted. We are going to prioritize prevention.”
Part of all this is just Queensland. It comes with the territory, as they say. Comes with the terrain might be a better way of putting it, as Brisbane is basically built in a flood plain. You can’t help but consider the folly of building Australia’s third largest city in a flood plain, but then Melbourne is built on a big old swamp too, so that’s two of them. And Sydney will hardly be immune to rising sea levels.Brisbane is characterised, like perhaps no other city on earth, by a particular kind of domestic architecture: the Queenslander. This is typically a wooden house with a pitched tin roof overhanging a wrap-around veranda, a cruciform internal layout to enable air flow, and elevated high on stilts to catch the breeze and avoid the bugs. Designed to create good air flows under and through the building, and originally enable people to sleep outside, you see them everywhere across the city. It’s uniquely identified with the city. Over time, they’ve become both coveted and replaced, with good examples being preserved and becoming expensive, and yet many demolished in favour of new builds done in the cheaper ‘slab on ground’ model of building, which is the easiest way of doing it. But guess which is most appropriate for these conditions? Those wooden houses on stilts are often sitting pretty above the rising water at the moment.
There will be much finger-pointing after this, from insurance companies refusing to pay up due to the releases from dams not technically being floods (what on earth else are they then?); from those who point out that, as memory of the ’74 floods faded, developers were allowed to build in flood plains earmarked for further dams; from those pointing out that the floods are a result of climate change (even if these ones aren’t, future ones will be); from those pointing out that the entire fragile mode of suburban development of Australian cities is particularly unsuited to the resilience required of the near-future; that development should not have been allowed on the riversides and basins of floodplains, and so on.
There will be a time for discussing how to achieve more resilient patterns of settlement in Australia. I’m not at all convinced that Australians have the appetite for genuinely addressing this, even despite the floods. Most people are apparently incapable of thinking about the future on the scale required for investment in things like urban resilience, even accepting we need to get better at communicating all this. I’m not sure people see the connection between devastating flooding and a culture where property developers call the shots, where cost drives aspiration in building and infrastructure, and where a car-based fabric of dispersed tarmac’ed low-density communities is virtually the Australian dream. But if it’s not events like this, I’m not sure what else it would take to make this clear and force the issue.