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What Australia learned from recent devastating floods and how New Zealand can apply those lessons now

Public Policy / opinion
What Australia learned from recent devastating floods and how New Zealand can apply those lessons now
Getty Images.

By Iftekhar Ahmed*

Australia and New Zealand have both faced a series of devastating floods triggered by climate change and the return of the La Niña weather pattern. So it makes sense that Australia has now sent disaster crews to help with the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle.

With five serious floods in the space of 19 months in 2021-2022, Australia’s experiences – and how people responded – offer New Zealand a guide for recovering and rebuilding after an extreme weather event.

The flooding events in both countries share two key common elements. First, the floods broke previous records and were the largest in recent history. Second, there were also repeat flood events.

In Auckland, there were two massive floods within five days, while Cyclone Gabrielle became the Coromandel’s fifth severe weather event for 2023 and devastated other parts of the North Island.

The other common factor is urbanisation. Auckland’s population has been growing, resulting in the increasing development of the built environment. Intensifying urban development places pressure on existing drainage systems – parts of which are no longer fit for purpose.

Extensive built-up and paved areas with hard, impermeable surfaces can also cause rapid run-off during heavy rain, with the water unable to be absorbed into the ground as it would be in soft, vegetated areas.

Disruption by floods to the road connection to Aberdeen, Hunter Valley. NSW Surf Lifesaving, Author provided.

Working with the community

Our recent research in the Hunter Valley in Australia – one of the areas affected by those five successive floods – identified similar factors contributing to the flooding events, including a rapidly growing regional population.

Two of our research sites – the Cessnock and Singleton local government areas – had growing urban centres that reflected a similar development trajectory to Auckland, albeit in a smaller scale.

Our research in the Hunter Valley established the importance of identifying existing community resilience and gaps. We also observed the need to involve the community at all levels. This included having early warning systems and evacuation protocols in place to improve community access to information and warnings.

The State Emergency Services (SES) is the main agency in New South Wales responsible for flood response and management. Supported by community volunteers, the SES has a clear focus at the local level.

This community focus is evident with its “door-knocking kit”, which is based on a community-level vulnerability assessment. The SES has a list of those in the community who are most at risk, such as the elderly and people with disabilities. When a flood risk becomes evident, SES volunteers go knocking on doors to check their preparedness and provide evacuation support.

The equivalent of SES in New Zealand, Auckland Emergency Management, could learn from this community-based approach and include it within its Community Group Support initiative, so that future disaster responses can be more closely tailored to the community.

In the recent floods in Auckland, communication was an issue. Relaying directives and information through multiple institutional layers led to confusion, which could have been avoided through a closer community-based approach.

Building a volunteer army

Another key factor in Australia is the large cadre of SES volunteers – around 9,000 in New South Wales, a state with a population of just over eight million. This is a significant form of social capital, without which the current approach to flood response and management would not be possible.

While there are initiatives in New Zealand to attract and engage volunteers, more needs to be done. Civil defence needs to conduct a structural review of the existing volunteer organisations that work in the disaster and emergency response field to identify ways to improve the recruitment and retention.

We also found evidence of volunteer “burn-out”, meaning there’s a need to support volunteers emotionally and financially during extended periods of disaster response and recovery.

While there is a large number of SES volunteers in Australia, more are needed as climate change drives more frequent, extensive and intense disasters. Given the similar nature of repeat climate-related disaster events in New Zealand, provisions for a large cadre of well-supported and well-trained volunteers is necessary.

A review of existing volunteer agencies and community organisations should be undertaken to identify ways they can be harmonised to avoid competing pressures for resources. As well, there’s a need to nurture collaboration between agencies to help with sharing skills, training, data and resource management.

State Emergency Services played an important role in working with the community during and after the Hunter Valley floods. NSW Surf Lifesaving, Author provided.

The need for resilience

Perhaps the key lesson for New Zealand, and also Australia, is the need to think beyond emergency management to building long-term resilience within agencies and communities.

As climate-related disasters become more common, we need to think about how our cities grow and how we can incorporate flood resilience by retaining green areas and vegetation, improved drainage and transportation links.

But both countries also need to focus on being ready for a disaster, instead of managing it after it happens. In doing so, the pressures of managing the disaster when it arrives would be less – and so would the long-term impacts on people and the economy.The Conversation

*Iftekhar Ahmed, Associate Professor, University of Newcastle. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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I think both Rural and Urban NZ areas need much better voluteer Cival Defense networks in place.   The SES examples are a good starting point.     I think Auckland got through that first flood as the comms links (cell/text/data and power) stayed up.

Cell sites are going to need to be hardened with Gensets, 

The message that you will be on your own for 10 days after a disaster needs to be repeated over and over.  It's impossible to provide immediate assistance at the scale of these events.  Help must be local.

If you live in a flood plane or next to a river bank, I suggest evacuation before the event is now wise.


Some solar panels and satellite internet seem a pretty good investment if you live where the power supply and road in and out are vulnerable.


"Cell sites are going to need to be hardened with Gensets" This is likely to require legislation and even if legislated the consenting will be a nightmare. Further more highly unlikely can locate a genset on the tower. Next to it may involve land purchase. Its best  just to define a duration for which the tower must remain operating and leave it up to the cell provider to determine whether genset, solar or wind is required for backup power.

Also as an IT Guy how many times are you aware of a genset not starting when required? I'd suggest too frequently.



It happens for sure.    If you put gensets there you have to maintain them.    But since we moved away from repeated VHF/UHF we now have a vulnerability.  


can satelite services be incorporated as emergency providers to harden a network against failure in a disaster?

Cheaper than gensets or the alternatives


Starlink seems to work well, but it has a high operational cost between uses for cival defense.

Trade tested is selling these 6.5kw gensets for delivery april for $1199.   I got one just before covid.  I rate them, they have a very effective choke and I can start mine from dead cold first or second pull.  More importantly so can my partner and teenage girls.

Newman Generator 6500W - Petrol - Traditional - Generators - Tools & Hardware at Trade Tested

they say 2L per how at 75% load, I don't load mine that much and it uses way less petrol, maybe a L per hour.  Most of the time I have 2 chest freezers and two big fridge/freezers running on it plus a mass of phopne/laptop chargers etc.   Anyone rural just needs to have a genset.  If older the diesel push button startrs are great.   I may get one and wire into house on an A/B switch yet.



With the current high monitoring of river levels and flows around NZ surely these must be prioritised for resilience in terms of power supply so that they continue to monitor and send information out during high rainfall events. I noticed that the river level gauges for the Tutaukuri River all went on the bling at 1.15am on Tuesday. Just when the river level increase was becoming extreme. Linking these to evacuation texts for those people who live downstream is one tool in the kit to save lives. Perhaps we prioritise the key gauges and invest in their survivability.


Rain monitoring up in the headlands was necessary, this wasn't a liner increase.    To get adequate warning I think they needed rainfall monitoring way further up.

A bit like how Auckland got overwhelmed between 5-7pm.    


Correct, but here's the problem. Council CEOs too busy fending off inane councillor requests. Councils not employing people with some technical knowledge. If they don't then then Councils don't want to pay by employing electrical contractors who'll put something in that's barely passable. Next is professional consultants. Even that can be somewhat fraught as how does the Council know if they are employing the right consultants?

An example but not related to cell sites. New Plymouth in the last 10 years or so. Sewage pipeline and pumping station from Oakura to New Plymouth. Budgeted at about $7mill and cost $24mill. Involved in the preliminary studies. Professional Consultants, a Civil Contractor and Council official/s. I can only conclude no competent person in the Council or Consultants able to read and understand a Civil Engineering contract, especially where there are too many unknowns and the contractor has not unnaturally covered themselves for these unknowns.


Here is by far the most impressive management of the aftermath of a flood and it happened in Australia.

It cost $30 million and took 11 months.

The lessons were

Act very quickly and do not get bogged down in bureaucratic naval gazing and other rubbish

Appoint a single Engineer to achieve the task and give them the freedom and power to achieve what is required

Treat people very fairly and take the community with you. (Quite literally)

The article covers the care for people in the immediate aftermath of an event which is important.  Trouble is in NZ that we get bogged down after that in providing what people need to get on with their lives with optimisim and hope.  We seem to get to this point and fall into a depressing morass of bureaucracy factionalism and inertia.  I am sure that if the people of the East Coast had this sort of leadership and future to look forward to, they would be very much happier and we would not be faced with the prospect of half arsed patches and repeated failures.


Lesson 1. Don't build there.

Lesson 2. Don't be thinking you can keep growing infinitely on a finite planet.


"...triggered by climate change and the return of the La Niña weather pattern." Whatever you do don't mention the volcano in the room. 

"How a Tongan volcanic eruption almost guarantees a 'flooded summer' for Australia’s east coast

This La Niña event is forecast to end early next year, but don’t be fooled into thinking drier weather is coming anytime soon.

October 22, 2022 - 6:05AM…


What % of the moisture in the southern hemisphere atmosphere was emitted by the eruption?


This was in the link above: "The quantity of water in the stratosphere in the southern hemisphere has increased by about 20 per cent since the volcanic eruption. "


"EOS, which belongs to Advancing Earth and Space Science (AGU), cited a research report by Schoeberl et al. (10.1029/2022GL100248). There, too, it appears that the amount of water vapor was the largest ever measured during a volcanic eruption.

...A surprising result was that the midstratospheric eruption aerosols and water stayed in the Southern Hemisphere for 5.5 months, with very little material moving north of the equator.

The data also revealed the development of an anomalous 3- to 4-kelvin temperature decrease in the midstratosphere through March and April, which appears to have been caused by the infrared cooling effects of the lofted water vapor."…




Thanks. But that is the stratosphere, where there is relatively little water to start with. What % of the troposhere (where our rain comes from) was it?


So you now want troposphere now? Sounds like a good homework project for you,  Fill your boots. Bear in mind the climate system is a coupled non-linear chaotic system and it can only tamed by flying private jets to COP meetings and taking money off tradies/farmers and giving it to tesla drivers.