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The flooding in south-east Queensland is the result of climate change, two La Niña summers and a slow-moving low-pressure system. More than that, it is the result of a failure of collective memory and of governments to act. By Kristina Olsson.

What the river didn’t forget

Flood wreckage at the Hawthorne ferry terminal on the Brisbane River this week.
Flood wreckage at the Hawthorne ferry terminal on the Brisbane River this week.
Credit: AP Photo / Tertius Pickard

I can’t remember when it started, but I remember vividly when it ended. The rain. Relentless, as hard as nails hammered into a roof. It slammed against windows and walls, against bitumen and foliage. It didn’t stop. After days and nights I was maddened by its sound, loud and bullying as an army.

I’ve lived in the tropics and know the constant summer sounds of the Wet. The predictable rainstorm that dumps and runs, the dripping of gutters and leaves. This was different. A torment, insistent and frightening. After a few days the air had an odour, the soil too: like rotting flowers in a graveyard. Or rubbish left out too long. It was nothing like the clean, washed air of ordinary rain.

On the last night, kept awake by its constant assault, I checked windows and doors for leaks. Then I slept. And woke to the absence of sound. I’d never imagined that strange kind of deafness would be a mercy. The rain had gone.

 

Every morning I walked down the hill to the river. I checked its sly encroachment into the park, through the buckled ferry terminal, over the paths. It was a slow ingress at its banks, an inching forward and back; you might even call it gentle. But the centre of the river was a wild, muscular tide, moving faster than a camera could catch it. Once inside it, nothing – not a boat nor a tree nor a body – could escape.

A scattering of people watched on, quiet as the river itself. The quiet of watery destruction, of death. We were the lucky ones, witnesses rather than victims. As we all snapped our photographs, I thought: Yes, remember this. We have a responsibility to remember.

But how could we forget the bizarre pantomime in our view: concrete pylons, branches, pontoons rocking and pivoting in the maelstrom, almost balletic, or comic. Until they swung towards the bank, and slammed into a jetty or a floating walkway. Tipped, shattered and disappeared.

Upriver, the Story Bridge was a blurred arc in the uniform grey: river, sky, air. At night, to the soundtrack of rain pebbling the window and roof, the news reported death and chaos. Ran vision of buildings sliced into matchsticks and bent tin. Plastic bags, the great survivors, leapt and flew in the debris.

 

I grew up near the river, in a cul-de-sac suburb wrapped by water on three sides. So the river and I met, whichever way I walked. It slipped into my consciousness, around the perimeters of my life; its loops and bends shaped my thoughts and my memory. The river’s twists created a city that, for me, can still be secretive, mysterious. It is not unusual here, in Brisbane, in the pocketed suburbs, to find a boat, rather than a house, at the bottom of a dead-end street.

But the river is more than a body of water that cuts through our daily view. It’s a mirror, reflecting us back at ourselves, our attitudes and preoccupations, our politics, our frailties and desires. Just look at what we’ve done to it: gouged at its banks and scoured its bed, so its basin is no longer shaped like a curved and elegant bathtub but rather like a blunt shovel. In making it more navigable for ships, in reclaiming and building on shifting swamp and shallows, we have quickened and deepened its potential to flood. We have cut it, tunnelled it, fed it full of toxins and crammed it with factories, entertainments, the houses of our dreams. We have made it emblematic of the city around it, emblematic of ourselves.

 

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick is the chief investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes. She explores observed trends, climate extremes and heatwaves. She points to several factors contributing to this week’s floods in Brisbane and northern New South Wales.

“South-east Queensland has had two wet summers, two La Niña summers, and a wet spring between them as a booster,” she says. “So the area was waterlogged to start with. It’s a bad recipe. Add the extra moisture in the warming atmosphere, which itself means heavier rain, plus the slow-moving low and the sheer intensity of rainfall and you have an unprecedented amount of water.”

She says the ingredients fit with a pattern; but still, it caught her and many others by surprise. “It was the sheer magnitude of it. Brisbane had three days of 200 millimetres per day. Northern NSW had 900 millimetres over 24 hours. That’s insane. Even the Bureau of Meteorology couldn’t predict that.”

Is climate change to blame? “It’s hard to say definitively how much climate change contributed. Certainly it fits with extreme events in climate change. But the analysis hasn’t been done yet,” she says.

“At any rate I think that’s the wrong question to ask. The question now is: Did climate change contribute to this event? There’s always a convolution of other systems, as there was with Black Summer. You need a team to scrutinise models and categorise it. But there’s certainly a signal there, and in coming months we might get a handle on it. I’m hopeful that scientists will dig into the unprecedented nature of it.”

 

Tim Flannery isn’t surprised. The environmentalist and leading writer on climate change has seen the unprecedented, over and over. “Thousands of weather records in heat and rainfall have been broken in Australia,” he says. “It’s getting harder and harder to dismiss the fact that it’s wetter and hotter. This was predicted – and governments have to respond to the consequences.”

Like Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Flannery had not yet seen all the data – “But it does look entirely consistent with climate change patterns.”

He describes the familiar contradiction. “The rainfall looks exceptional – and consistent with the rest of the country. That’s frightening because we have known about it for decades. And there’s been no planning.

“Some state governments are acting, but some are still greedy for fossil fuels. This is our last narrow little window. Shut the coalmines and coal-fired plants. And stop exporting gas. Stop illegal land clearing.

“We’re shamefully behind the rest of the world and are justly criticised. Those recalcitrant governments – throw them out. Throw out those who refuse to act.”

 

Just as the strong low-pressure system at the heart of the rainstorm shifted south, the second report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change landed, with some irony, on the laps of climate researchers and academics and journalists around the world. Its major findings were clear: the observed warming of the Earth’s surface; its attribution to human activities; projected increases in global mean temperatures and rising sea levels, including an increased frequency of heatwaves.

“The scientific evidence is unequivocal,” wrote IPCC chair Hoesung Lee. “Climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet.” The report’s authors, including several from Australia, urged “accelerated action to adapt to climate change, and rapid, deep cuts in greenhouse emissions”. It recognised “the interdependence of climate, biodiversity and people”.

 

Of course, politics wash around in this story. How could they not? Governments have enormous influence on natural disasters, their causes and their effects. It is local and state governments that decide the tracts of land available for development. They have a say over the parcels of land that might be reclaimed from swamp or rock, what uses they might be put to, where a city might rise.

The sprawling city of Brisbane is built on a floodplain. Aboriginal people have always known this and understood what it means. But non-Aboriginal people, if they understand its implications, have largely chosen to ignore them. The city has suffered a string of major floods since John Oxley chose the site for a settlement; the drama and consequences of flood must in some way be stored as collective memory. The smell and ooze of floodwater is difficult to forget.

But perhaps we do forget. Not long after the big flood of 1974, which ripped houses from their foundations and demolished riverside industries and sent residents fleeing to hillsides, houses once more began to appear on the riverbank. Apartment blocks, factories. Had our collective memory failed? Bemused, I asked a local architect who understands better than most how the desire for beauty can flood the human heart. It takes just 15 years, he said, to forget such trauma. Not quite a generation, then, to reimagine and reinvent the past.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "The river".

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Kristina Olsson is a Queensland writer and journalist. Her most recent book is the award-winning memoir Boy, Lost.

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