2019, 198 p plus notes
As it happened, when I was in Brisbane earlier this year, we ambled along the Riverwalk floating walkway. Watching the ferries and catamarans plying the river, crossing the pedestrian bridges and feeling the sand under our toes on the man-made beach, we wondered “Why doesn’t Melbourne do more with its river?” Then we passed a restaurant on the walkway that had a mark on its window (which I’ve highlighted here in red) to show the height of the 2011 flood. You can gauge its height by the legs on the stools at the bottom of the window.
At first I thought “What resilience!” but after reading Margaret Cook’s book, I’m not so sure. This restaurant would have been under water in 1893 and 1974 had it been there then, and it will be under water again when the floods inevitably return. This dogged determination to keep rebuilding is exactly what Cook means when she says that the Brisbane River is a river with a city problem, and not the other way round.
White settlers, like the indigenous people who were here before them, are always drawn to fresh water sources. They should have listened to the Turrbal and Jagera people whose Dreamtime stories tell how the river was created by Moodagurra, with an emphasis on the rain and cloud that allowed him to wriggle to form the sinuous river. Of course, they didn’t listen to anyone. Early development took place on the floodplain, subjected to regular floods, but riverfront continued to be viewed as prime land.
Until 1893, that is, when the floodwaters surged onto the floodplains, where homes, wool sheds warehouses and industries had been located. Thirty-five people drowned. The solution? Why, build a dam, of course!….and this has been the approach in Brisbane ever since. There was a hiatus between 1893 and 1974, when drought was often more of a problem than flood, but inevitably the floods came again, and the Somerset dam was found lacking. And so, the solution? Why, build another dam – this time, the Wivenhoe, which was designed to be a dual-purpose dam that would maintain a water supply for Brisbane in times of drought, but also prevent Brisbane and Ipswich from flooding during heavy rains. A shorter hiatus this time, between 1974 and 2011, then inevitably the floods came after days and days of rain. This time, the ubiquity of smart phones meant that the flood was captured in all of its swirling, turbid power, and rank, stinking aftermath.
This book tells the story of the three major floods – 1893, 1974 and 2011 – from ecological, geographical and human perspectives. More importantly, though, it looks at the failure of policy as successive governments of both persuasions lacked the courage to say ‘enough!’ and prevent development on the floodplain. In the aftermath of a crisis, there’s a proud defiance in claiming that” we will rebuild” but often it defeats good sense.
But the Queensland governments were even more egregious than other Australian governments, in their dogged pursuit of growth and development at all costs. It’s not just Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s white shoe brigade here; it’s Clem Jones the Labor Mayor of Brisbane, and a succession of Premiers of both persuasions who consistently looked to technology instead of asking the harder question “Should we even be building here?” When other governments were looking at floodplain planning, especially in the light of global climate change, Queensland governments went through the motions, leaving loopholes that were (of course!) exploited, and tip-toeing around developers and their investments.
By the time the 2011 floods came, even though the water level itself was lower than earlier floods, the financial implications were disastrous because of the encouragement of higher-density development on the floodplain. She discusses the role of Newscorp media after this flood, most particularly the Australian, in attacking the science behind the decision to release dam water to save the dam, and blaming individuals rather than opening up a broader analysis of the systems that had led to such disastrous results.
The book had its origins in a PhD thesis, which is a remarkably hard genre to shrug off when writing for a more general audience. This is most obvious in the chapter ‘Flood Management with Hindsight’, which examines the decision to release flood water during the 2011 floods. There are lots of acronyms in this chapter, and I rued the lack of a glossary of abbreviations. I also regretted, as a general reader not local to Brisbane, the lack of a more detailed map of the Brisbane River within the city of Brisbane. There is a map that shows the Brisbane River Catchment more broadly, but when mentioning suburbs and city landmarks, the names meant little to me without a map.
The presence of images throughout the book, especially when discussing the three floods, breaks up the text. I liked that the pictures were placed within the text, instead of being corralled in the middle of the book as a set of plates – a decision probably made easier by the fact that they were black-and-white newspaper images, rather than colour photos.
By the end of the book, I was not at all confident that anything had been learned at all, and I don’t think that Cook is, either. That line on the restaurant window showing the flood level that I spoke of earlier seems now to be more an act of hubris, than a mark of resilience. For now. Her conclusion, titled “The Floods Will Come Again” is a statement of fact, rather than a prognostication of doom. Perhaps then the political courage might be found to acknowledge that the city itself is the problem, rather than the river. As the title says, it is a river with a city problem, and not the other way round.
Source: review copy courtesy of the author
I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.