So far thousands of people have been evacuated as the worst floods in almost half a century hit Australia. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology issued weather warnings for every state or territory in the mainland except one, affecting 10 million people, reports Reuters.
In recent days emergency services have rescued thousands of people, and some 22,000 should be ready to leave their homes if asked to, thus joining about 18,000 who have already been evacuated. “The rain and flood situation does remain dynamic and extremely complex,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
New South Wales is the worst affected state. Warragamba Dam, supplying water to Sydney, started to overflow last Saturday and is expected to continue. Greater Sydney’s eleven reservoirs are at 99.5% capacity.
No major rainfall is forecast in the coming days, and rescue teams now focus on securing emergency supplies for those affected by the floods. Ahead is a massive clean-up. "We're certainly not out of the woods in terms of the immediate flood danger, but we have to turn our minds to how we start the clean-up and the recovery", NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said. The government has said army troops will be deployed starting this Thursday to support clean-up efforts. With thousands of homes and business damaged, more than 17,000 insurance claims have been received and more are anticipated.
Even as the Warragamba and other dams are spilling water, the authorities have ordered Sydney’s desalination plant to abandon its standby mode and start producing water “to mitigate against the risk of variable raw water quality due to the ongoing severe wet weather”, a spokesperson told the Sydney Morning Herald. “This action will reduce the pressure on the city’s water treatment plants which are dealing with the impacts of the one-in-50-year flood event and ensure we continue to deliver high-quality drinking water”. The plant will be in emergency response mode, which allows increasing the production within 14 hours, for at least two weeks.
The plant was switched on in January 2019 as water storages in Greater Sydney’s reservoirs dropped due to drought. It remained in operation for most of last year even after water restrictions in Sydney were eased, since there were concerns about water quality in the Warragamba reservoir being affected by debris from bushfires in the reservoir catchment.
The floods have hit some of the same areas devastated by bushfires in early 2020 and by a severe drought prior to that, as 2019 was Australia’s warmest and driest year on record. The accumulation of natural disasters raises concerns about compounding damages to the environment and the economy, and is a warning call about the need to build resilience.