Underfunded and undermined: As floods hit Sydney’s southwest, our research shows councils unprepared

Thousands of people in Sydney’s southwest have been ordered to evacuate as extreme rains hit the area and floodwaters rise rapidly. The downpour is expected to continue for days.

This region, particularly western Sydney, is no stranger to weather-related disasters. Rain falls on watersheds already soggy from severe flooding in March last year. Western Sydney is also vulnerable to extreme heat and is 8-10℃ warmer than Eastern Sydney during heat waves.

Local councils are the level of government closest to communities and help determine how resilient regions are to disasters such as floods. But are councils prepared for the more frequent and intense disasters that climate change brings?

According to our new research on eight western Sydney councils, the answer is no. We believe it is not easy to take action on the ground as these councils attempt to balance competing urban development priorities with limited resources and stretched budgets.

Balancing responsibilities

When disasters such as floods occur, state and territory governments can declare states of emergency and create evacuation orders.

But local councils are central to building community resilience and communicating directly with residents. This includes flood mapping, restricting certain developments near high-risk areas, and communicating evacuation routes to residents.

Clearly distinguishing these responsibilities is crucial for Western Sydney, which is one of Australia’s fastest growing regions and intensely affected by the destructive effects of climate change.

Western Sydney councils are currently dealing with back-to-back disasters in an ongoing cycle of crisis management. At the same time, they are responsible for advancing the NSW government’s housing and infrastructure development goals, which includes building nearly 185,000 homes between 2016 and 2036.

Coupled with a lack of staff and funding, do they really have the capacity to deal with all of this?

Western Sydney is one of Australia’s fastest growing regions. Shutterstock

What we found

We analyzed 150 local government policies and planning documents, as well as local health district strategies. We also conducted 22 stakeholder interviews across Western Sydney’s eight councils.

The good news is that each council recognizes the importance of addressing climate risks and demonstrates a strong commitment to implementing sustainability, climate and resilience strategies. Although steps are being taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change on health and well-being, strategies are in their very early stages.

From our interviews, there is a strong desire to do more, and all councils agree that emergency preparedness and recovery work must take priority. Although a NSW resilience program aims to address this issue, it does not necessarily align with the unique risks that each local community faces.

Acting quickly to move from planning to implementing strategies – such as redesigning buildings to match climate forecasts – is simply not within their capability. And indeed, councils could not get there in time to mitigate the next climate crisis.

Although councils receive money from the New South Wales government’s disaster relief funding, they may struggle to pay for recovery from events such as floods. It can take weeks, months or even years to get local communities back on their feet.

As the councils explained to us, this means that already limited funds are taken away from other work, such as long-term sustainability goals or simply large daily provisions.

The town councils of Hawkesbury, Fairfield and Penrith are particularly challenged. They experienced the worst flooding in 50 years last March and are now facing even greater flood warnings in Hawkesbury-Nepean River.

State government undermines local decisions

Despite these challenges, councils have consistently told us that the biggest barrier to achieving sustainable, resilient and climate-friendly development in Western Sydney is NSW State’s planning guidelines.

In the planning system, state policies take precedence over local plans and policies. This means that local councils often struggle to implement their own strategies.

The upshot is that state government pressure to build more housing estates can undermine local council policies aimed, for example, at preserving farmland and open space – measures that protect against flooding.

Indeed, this year’s floods have once again shown how problematic pro-growth agendas and “development for development’s sake” can be.

The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear that flooding will increase in magnitude and frequency, and that overdevelopment (part of a problem called “maladaptation”) will exacerbate the damage it inflicts.

So what needs to be changed? Our research presents a clear roadmap for local and state government agencies to better prepare.

This includes increased leadership and coherence from state government, greater collaboration across councils and at different levels of government, capacity building, and more targeted funding.

What is planned and built today must ensure the safety, health and well-being of existing and new communities. Giving councils the right resources will help more of us survive in an uncertain future.The conversation

Nicky Morrison, planning teacher, University of Western Sydney and Patrick Harris, Senior Researcher, Deputy Director, CHETRE, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: www.phys.org

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