As Western Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the state faces the vast task of post-flood rebuilding in a way that prepares for more extreme rainfall events. By Jesse Noakes.

How politics is hindering the Kimberley flood emergency

The main bridge into the town of Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia is inundated.
The main bridge into the town of Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia is inundated.
Credit: Andrea Myers

When the Fitzroy River, known as Martuwarra by its traditional custodians, began to rise on New Year’s Day, Waanyi man Patrick Davies stayed home and began lifting his possessions progressively higher above the water line. Davies, a co-ordinator at a local health service, spent the next three days ferrying belongings to higher ground in his little boat as the river kept rising, until the water was waist-deep in the living room of his house on stilts.    

Davies has lived in the Kimberley since he was two years old and is used to flooding. In 2007, the musician recorded a song, “Wet Season Again”, that tells of the “muddy waters just a rolling by”.

He has never seen anything like the event last month. “This is the biggest one,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “This is the No. 1 flood.”

Ultimately, the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River peaked almost two metres higher than its previous record. At one point, more than 60,000 cubic metres of water were surging past Fitzroy Crossing every second, and the river swelled to 50 kilometres wide.

“One thing about this flood is it really caught everybody by surprise in the timing,” says Davies. “It’s usually in February or March that this river starts rising … so we’ve still got a wet season to deal with yet. But this one came early.”

While the receding waters left Davies’ home still habitable, dozens of others have been lost.

“In crisis, this valley always comes together, and we all know one another,” he says, adding that the response from authorities has disregarded local experience and understanding. “They don’t know the value that we bring to the table with our expertise and knowledge. They don’t understand that we have all this knowledge that could assist them.”

The chief executive of Marra Worra Worra Aboriginal Corporation, Antonio Giometti, says that “one of the frustrations I have has been the lack of information” from authorities to the people affected. “There’s just no planning in place.”

With access and accommodation damaged by floodwaters, repairs and rebuilding could be hampered by a shortage of outside tradespeople and services. “What needs to happen is a program that’s put in place that employs local people to do the work,” Giometti says. “So they respect it, they’re trained and so people feel valued. And then you’ll have people who are prepared to do what needs to be done.”

In the first days of the emergency, as the Western Australian government grappled with the largest flood event in the state’s history, hundreds of people were evacuated from Fitzroy Crossing and surrounding communities. Many were sent to Derby, the nearest town to the west but situated near the mouth of the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River, which cut access to the town as the flood waters moved downstream.

Crime had already been on the rise in Derby, with property offences doubling last year, and the flood happened while many service workers were out of town for the holidays and subsequently unable to return. Derby locals say the WA government’s decision to introduce hundreds of Fitzroy Valley evacuees increased the pressure on the town.

“We advocated to the government not to bring them here and they did it anyway,” says Derby/West Kimberley shire president Geoff Haerewa.

“The effect was immediate, in that our services struggled to cope with the limited resources we had. That was personnel, food, blankets, fuel and the rest of it. We struggled; we’re still struggling.”

In response, the state government has told The Saturday Paper that consideration was given to keeping people on Country or as close to community as possible.

“Access to acute healthcare services and keeping people close to Aboriginal health and care providers was also a priority,” says a government spokesperson. “Derby and Broome were therefore chosen as towns which met this complex and wide-ranging criteria.”

Robin Chapple is a Derby resident and former long-time member of parliament for the massive mining and pastoral electorate that encompasses the Kimberley, which he says is often out of sight and out of mind for the decision-makers in Perth.

“The government ought to have known better regarding pre-existing crime rates,” he says about the added pressures on the town from the influx of evacuees.

Police enforced a temporary ban on takeaway alcohol following reports of an increase in alcohol-related incidents, but restrictions were lifted after protests outside Derby’s police station late last month.

Another Derby resident, who didn’t want to be named, suggested that the protests came primarily from a white population unfairly targeting Aboriginal incomers. “You’re pretty reliant on alcohol if you’re behaving like this [in response to restrictions] – it was so disgraceful to see, and it really seemed to have this racist undertone.”

The only road to Derby remains cut off by flood damage, and a temporary replacement road is expected to open later this month, according to the WA government. Food supplies that were scarce during previous weeks have now stabilised, although locals told The Saturday Paper this week that grocery shelves were still bare by the end of each day.

To the north of Fitzroy Crossing, a collapsed bridge cut off the Great Northern Highway that provides the only road link between towns in the East Kimberley and the rest of WA. By current estimates, it may take two years to replace, while trucks supplying Halls Creek and Kununurra with food and goods from Perth have had to detour more than 3000 kilometres via South Australia and the Northern Territory.

Cam Dumesny, chief executive of the Western Roads Federation, says the delay has added 70-80 per cent to freight costs. “There has to be some form of subsidy put in place for all freight in or out of the East Kimberley,” he says.

“We’ve still got eight single-lane bridges through the Kimberley on the national highway,” he says. “They are being replaced but at a pretty slow pace … and that does need to be accelerated.”

Dumesny notes that three serious fire or flood events have closed access into WA by road or rail in the past three years, and he insists that further investment is needed to futureproof the transport network and safeguard supply chains against climate change. “They are becoming more frequent and we’re going to have to adjust our whole logistics chains accordingly,” he says of the fires and floods.

Robin Chapple agrees that there needs to be more policy forethought to ensure the next extreme rain event doesn’t cause the same extensive disruption.

“We know climate change will exacerbate structural issues and we need long-term planning to address these issues so they don’t keep happening,” he says.

“There needs to be some question of what we are going to do in the future. Are we just going to rebuild or are we going to invest in infrastructure that will withstand worsening conditions caused by climate change?”

Martin Pritchard, a Broome resident and the campaigns director of Environs Kimberley, says that Fitzroy Crossing averages 67 days a year when temperatures exceed 40 degrees, and they are predicted to rise significantly this century. “As the temperatures are increasing, we’re getting more water in the atmosphere, so the potential is that they basically build up into what we’ve just seen,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

“What we’re seeing is the beginning of serious rain events due to climate change here in the Kimberley. Of course we have floods in the wet season but not to this extent.”

Western Australia is the only state in the country where greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and Pritchard points out that the WA government has refused to outlaw fracking across the Kimberley.

“If the Kimberley was fully fracked, there would be more than double the carbon emissions that Australia agreed to in the Paris Agreement – a massive climate bomb,” he says, citing a 2018 report from research firm Climate Analytics.

The state government said in a statement to The Saturday Paper that it is preparing a new adaptation strategy to be released later this year, following consultation with government agencies and peak industry bodies, as well as Aboriginal and environmental groups. “We’re also introducing climate change legislation this year to establish a framework for responsible emissions reductions to meet Western Australia’s goal of net zero by 2050,” a government spokesperson said.

“The legislation will create statutory requirements for the state government to set interim targets and develop strategies to adapt to the impacts of climate change. It will also formalise our ambitious aim to reduce government emissions by 80 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030.”

Some towns in the Kimberley have seen more politicians in the past month than they might normally encounter in a year, but Antonio Giometti insists it’s critical that the government listens to locals. “You need to talk to us. We know our Country,” he says. “We know what we need. Don’t run off or start doing stuff that we don’t know about.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 4, 2023 as "Politics in the flood zone".

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