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Campus News : March 2011
2 Campus News March 2011 University of Wollongong www.uow.edu.au OPINION The powerful, turbulent, red-brown sediment-laden water gushing across our TV screens this summer, sweeping all before it, has shocked us with the awesome force of nature and the terrible toll it has wrought on life, property and public infrastructure. Yet again, after Australian communities have buried their dead and rebuilt their structures, long-term questions will remain. The floods will return with the rains in the years or decades to come but the red-brown soils are lost, increment by increment, forever. The Queensland floods have raised important issues relating to just how well Australia collects data vital for the accurate analysis of potential hazards, and how adequately our country understands and therefore is prepared to deal with our extreme environmental hazards. There have been grand pronouncements from our senior politicians with fully deserved declarations of sincere sympathy for the afflicted, pronouncements of how stoic are our citizens in the face of adversity, and promises of remedial action peppered with plans for reconstruction. Quite frankly, we have to be stoic because our politicians and senior bureaucrats over the years have not done the job they should have to prepare and protect our communities. We are declaration rich and action poor. Large floods and severe bushfires quite simply "go with the territory". We have one of the world's most variable climates and our climate and river gauging stations need to be operated for many decades and even centuries in order to characterise and analyse such variable regimes. However, for budgetary reasons they are often shut down with inadequate records after a few years of operation. Sediment monitoring is limited to so few locations it is of very little scientific value. While climate change could well be making these variable events even more hazardous, we won't know this for sure for decades to come and reference to this possibility is often an unwarranted distraction. It is the presently known and unvarnished severity of these repetitive events that we must respect and address. Europeans took most of their first century of occupation of the continent to appreciate the repetitive nature of such hazards. However, we appear to have squandered much of the subsequent century and more by not investigating their very serious risk in detail. As a nation we have not put the hard yards into analysing how best to anticipate and deal with them. The risk to the lives of this generation is serious enough and commonly tragic; the loss for future generations will not only be more lives but the stripping of topsoil from our catchments and degradation of our agriculture. While we have a large and very capable group of scientists in universities, consulting companies and government research institutions well able to analyse these problems and advise on remedial measures, they have been poorly served by our state and federal agencies that have provided precious little good data for analysis. While the Brisbane River is well gauged and has been for more than a century, it is a rare exception on a continent where rivers are our lifeblood and soils are our foundation for agriculture. While Australia has very few well-gauged rivers, just as astounding is that we have almost no data on how much sediment our rivers carry. This is an inexcusable shortcoming for a modern, industrialised, well-educated nation in the modern age. Quite frankly, the government agencies responsible for such basic data collection on flood frequencies, sediment yields and the relationships between drought, fire and flood have been "out to lunch" for more than a century. As well as killing scores of people and destroying homes and livelihoods, fires denude catchments of protective vegetation. Floods clearly represent a similar hazard to life and property, but less well appreciated is that they carry vast quantities of soil, much of it lost permanently from agricultural production, to locations where it severely damages our estuaries and coral reefs. Droughts, fires and floods are commonly-related hazards and there are benefits in studying their serial impact in an integrated way. The headwaters of some of our larger and steeper catchments are forested, and the El Nino decades of drought and fire are commonly followed by a La Nina year and devastating floods -- as has happened this year. With the data collection hopelessly divided between state, federal and even private bureaucracies, there are enormous gaps in what most developed nations would regard as a minimum data set upon which to scientifically assess and interpret the risks faced by their citizens. Without good data collected over many decades, the risks of drought, fire and flooding to life and property, and the longer term impact of soil losses, cannot be accurately assessed. The resulting ambiguities and inevitable arguments enable developers to often circumvent the efforts of regional and urban planners to set acceptable standards for the development of safe and sustainable communities. New Zealand, Canada and the United States have much more methodically acquired and vastly superior sets of data on river discharge and sediment yields following many decades of systematic sampling by government agencies. Fire is a hazard with special relevance to Australia, a continent that has over millions of years evolved both highly flammable vegetation and vast areas of relatively infertile topsoil. So with little good soil and where drought, fire and deforestation strip what protective cover there is, we have almost no real data on just how much soil is being lost. We simply cannot answer what is nationally a truly important question: "How quickly is Australia being washed away?" In the absence of actual data, the bureaucrats resorted to the "quick and cheap", and we certainly got what we paid for! They funded scientists to "model" runoff and soil losses associated with the sort of flooding we have seen in recent months across Queensland. But these models, despite the best efforts of the scientists involved, are virtually useless because there is insufficient real data to accurately "tune" them. Incongruously, we have just enough data to show how inadequate the models are. While NSW may see itself as the most populous and therefore sophisticated state, Queenslanders actually have done a substantially better job at collecting river flow and sediment data. However, neither state can compare with those countries mentioned earlier. The Howard Government committed $10 million to improving data collection as a part of the $10 billion allocated to correcting the water problems of the Murray- Darling basin, but such a sum is woefully inadequate to fill such a nation-wide information "black hole", and it's unclear at this stage just how effectively even that small sum has been spent. It is time the appropriate ministers and their chief bureaucrats for each of the state water authorities met their federal counterparts to institute a truly national network of basic data collection. If this were to be done tomorrow, it would still be decades before the data would be of sufficient volume and value to adequately assess the enormous problems we face in dealing with our natural hazards. Regardless of what climate change may do to worsen our situation, we must not sit on our hands and maintain this state of "scientific ignorance" for another decade, or worse, another century. GN * Professor Gerald Nanson is an expert on river channel erosion and floodplain formation at UOW's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Australia is being washed away By Professor Gerald Nanson