We must be prepared for nature's extremes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 January, 2011, 12:00am
 

Devastating floods with heavy loss of life are associated with countries that are low on the development ladder. Australia is affluent and wealthy, yet its northeastern state of Queensland is struggling physically and emotionally to deal with torrents of muddy water that have swept away lives and livelihoods and inundated tens of thousands of homes. The country is one of extremes, built on climatic and environmental adversity; still, no one could have predicted a calamity on such a scale. Nature's power and impulsiveness mean that each and every one of us is vulnerable to such a disaster, no matter how prepared we or our government may claim to be.

Queenslanders are well used to nature's violent ways. As with Hong Kong, they live in a subtropical region where typhoon-like storms are part and parcel of summer. Buildings and infrastructure in coastal areas are constructed with deluges and strong winds in mind. But all the experience and technological prowess cannot ensure that all severe circumstances can be weathered.

The people of the city of Toowoomba found that out on Monday when a freak storm struck, sending what was described as an 'inland instant tsunami' roaring through the downtown area. Residents were swept to their deaths, shops were smashed and vehicles and furniture floated along streets. Never before had there been such a tragedy. As they struggled to overcome the trauma, floodwaters surged into outlying districts and to Queensland's capital, Brisbane, and the neighbouring state of New South Wales, taking more lives and submerging homes.

This summer's wet season has been the harshest on record. Three-quarters of the state has been affected since heavy rains began in November. That has been devastating for the economy, which has been booming from tourism and minerals being sold to China. Damage alone runs into billions of dollars and Australia's growth rate could be cut by as much as 1 per cent.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh described the floods as the state's 'darkest hour'. But while there is shock, there is no shortage of resilience, nor does the nation lack the resources to take on the challenge. That is where the difference between development and otherwise comes in. Emergency services, police and the government have been swift to take charge, rescuing, keeping people safe, mopping up, repairing and getting ready for more.

Such preparedness is key to saving lives and property. It was absent in Manila in September 2009 when torrential rain caused the worst flooding in the Philippine capital in four decades. Hong Kong is one of the few places in Southeast Asia with sturdy infrastructure, making it less vulnerable to the fury of big storms. But with changing temperatures bringing climatic patterns that have not before been experienced, there is no assurance that we will always be fully prepared. Just as with Queensland, nature can - and will - be unpredictable. Queenslanders are still coming to grips with their losses. Floodwaters in Brisbane have only just started receding and it will be weeks, assuming dry weather prevails, before river levels return to normal. Some buildings will be uninhabitable; there is bound to be blame and political finger-pointing. That is to be expected - it is part of putting better safety systems in place.

We should not believe we can take on nature and win. Instead, we have to learn to live with its unpredictable ways. Technology and engineering know-how can tame, but there is no certainty of for how long. Preparedness is, in the circumstances, our best defence.

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