Communities across Australia are facing natural disasters with greater frequency and severity. The communities in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the far north and west of Queensland have been enduring a disaster which has lasted for months, cutting off communities, damaging essential basic infrastructure and testing the ‘resilience’ of people who could have invented the word ‘resilient’. You must be resilient every day to live and thrive in outback Australia.
This lesser-known natural disaster’s impact is out of mind for many Australians, given the region’s remote location, small population and no local media.
The Gulf of Carpentaria is a beautiful awe-inspiring area. Home to proud First Australians from many traditional owner groups, the land is ancient. It is where the Burke and Wills expedition ended and Burns Philp and Co set up their shipping enterprise.
Photo L-R: Dan McKinlay CEO Burke Shire Council, Cr Ernie Camp Mayor Burke Shire Council, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Troy Fraser CEO Doomadgee Aboriginal Shire Council, Hon Bob Katter MP Federal Member for Kennedy and Cr John Clarke Burke Shire Council. Photo Credit: Anne Pleash
It is low-lying, savannah grassland country and features Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park and the Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil deposits, acknowledged by world-renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough as one of the most important palaeontological sites in the world. The ‘Morning Glory’ cloud formation only occurs here and in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Gulf floods every year and it rejuvenates the land. Water lilies explode in the waterways, fish and prawn stocks are replenished and migratory birds from as far away as Siberia join the Australian brolga en masse in the waterways. It’s home to big crocs (the largest known saltwater crocodile ‘Krys’ is from here measuring 8.64m) and barramundi.
It has also been my home. I was born in the Gulf and I lived and worked in the Gulf after university.
But this year’s floods have broken all known records and isolated communities since before Christmas. The stock losses are expected to be between 100,000-120,000 head of cattle, costing around $150 million to the economy. Graziers could hear their stock calling out for help, but could not do anything. The mental health impacts will be significant.
The community of Burketown had to be evacuated. Adding to this challenge is the lifeline of the community - the airport - flooded meaning the evacuation could only be done on small rotary planes and by small helicopter.
The Indigenous community of Doomadgee has been cut off by road and has been flying in essential food for three months and expects to be isolated for two more months to come. The outstations in the area outside of Doomadgee (set up by State and Federal governments under the now defunct ATSIC) were completely inundated and these 60 people had to be moved into already overcrowded Doomadgee.
The Doomadgee sewerage ponds overflowed and the waste facility was not accessible. This was a significant environmental and public health concern. A significant number of its population are living with chronic disease and are vulnerable to infections.
The community of Doomadgee has a prevalence of rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease – which is essentially a disease of poverty caused by strep infections from overcrowding and poor living conditions. This has been brought to light recently through a 4 Corners investigative report which led to a coronial inquest into the deaths of three young women in Doomadgee from rheumatic heart disease.
Flooding in Doomadgee town was caused by backed-up storm water drains. The 30-year-old network only has 25 per cent of the pipe capacity. Doomadgee does not have footpaths, which means all the soil run-off during the wet season flows into the storm water. Once the dry season arrives this becomes cement like in the pipes. As many in the community sleep on mattresses on the floor, their bedding became wet and they required emergency shelter. These families had no purpose-built evacuation facility to go to.
Burke Shire Council has just over 220 rate payers and Doomadgee Aboriginal Shire Council are not allowed to charge rates and are completely reliant on state and federal government grants.
Through my consultancy business, Mission Consulting Solutions, I recently coordinated a delegation from Burke Shire Council and Doomadgee Aboriginal Shire Council to travel to Canberra to advocate for some essential (and compared to many communities, basic) infrastructure projects to help recovery, but also build future resilience. We also built the awareness and advocacy pressure through national media.
The requests are modest: raising the heights of crossings and bridges so communities are cut off for days and weeks, not months; building a levy bank so the sewerage ponds don’t overflow; moving landfill from flood plains and rivers; cleaning out storm water drains in Doomadgee so streets and homes don’t flood; a disaster evacuation centre; a renewable energy microgrid to power Gregory Downs and remove the reliance on diesel generation; and a pool and water park to be able to attract families to move to the area and work.
We met with over 20 elected representatives in Canberra including the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, National Party Leader and ministers. The desire to help these communities was united across the Parliament and we look forward to seeing what transpires in the Federal budget in May.
We will be doing a similar delegation for the Queensland Parliament April sitting week.
The Gulf communities are calling out for people to visit this dry season. So, if you are considering a holiday, you can help the local economy by visiting and having a meal in the pub, buying some fuel and making lifelong friends.
About the Author
Anne Pleash is a Women on Boards member who runs her own consulting business Mission Consulting Solutions specialising in advocacy, communications and government relations. Anne is a non-executive director with National Seniors Australia, Cancer Council Australia, Charley’s Chocolate (with WOB founder Ruth Medd) and the newly established industry body Cacao and Chocolate of Australian Origin (CACAO). Anne is only the 207th Australian to swim the English Channel.