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Sydney floods: Climate crisis becomes new normal for New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state


But for the fourth time in 18 months, cafe owner Darren Osmotherly is racing to move his equipment to higher ground as floodwaters rise in Greater Sydney after days of heavy rain.

“Every six to eight hours (we try) to take a hot shower and change again and try to have a coffee break room or a short sleep in between,” Osmotherly said, who says barely slept for three days.

When Osmotherly opened the cafe 15 years ago to provide people with disabilities on houseboats an easy place to dock for lunch, the Lower Portland property hadn’t been flooded in 30 years. But this is the fourth flood since last February, and the most recent since March.

“We built everything flood proof to deal with one flood once in a while, but to have four floods…” he said.

Flooding in Australia’s most populous state has become the new normal, as residents of the Greater Sydney region face increasingly erratic seasonal fluctuations.

The region, home to 8.12 million people, about a third of the country’s total population, has always experienced some degree of flooding in early summer.

But what was once a once-in-a-generation event has become commonplace, raising questions about the long-term sustainability of flood-prone communities.

More than half a meter (1.6ft) of rain has inundated parts of eastern New South Wales in the past 48 hours, with spills from numerous dams prompting flood warnings across the region.

In western Sydney, Warragamba Dam – Australia’s largest urban reservoir – began to overflow at 2am on Sunday and at its peak 515 gigalitres flooded its walls – the same amount of water being held back in Sydney Harbour.

A man paddles his boat through a flooded street in Windsor, on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia, July 5, 2022.

A spokesman for the state water authority said the dam had no flood mitigation component, so no water was released before the downpour, which occurred then that the state dam network was already 97% full. He said the dam was not responsible for the flooding.

“This is quite an extraordinary weather event. Warragamba is pouring into a particular river system, but there are large areas of Sydney that are flooded that are not downstream of Warragamba,” the spokesperson said.

It’s a surprising turnaround from just 15 years ago when the state decided to build a desalination plant to protect Sydney’s water supply after years of drought.

But this year, the La Nina weather system has generated more precipitation, and the Bureau of Meteorology says there’s a 50 to 50 chance it will form later in 2022, double the normal chance. The climate crisis is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of La Nina and El Nino, causing drought – this means that if La Nina forms again this year, there could be even more rain.

People paddle through a flooded street in Windsor, Australia, July 5, 2022

Thousands urged to evacuate

For residents of Greater Sydney, the floods have become a recurring nightmare.

Many are still recovering from the last flood in March, when water inundated many of the same areas, forcing businesses to close and rescuers to wade through putrid mud to help trapped residents.

The event caused $4.8 billion in damage, making it the third costliest disaster in the country, according to the Insurance Council of Australia.

Hundreds of millimeters of rain fell over the weekend, with more to come, New South Wales State Emergency Services (SES) commissioner Carlene York warned on Monday.

“We’re not out of danger yet in this significant weather event,” York said. “I would remind people to please make sensible decisions that protect you and your family.”

More than 70 evacuation orders were issued for the wider Sydney area on Monday, covering more than 30,000 people, and just days after the start of the school holidays, when many families were traveling, millions more were invited to stay at home.

“Please avoid essential travel. If you must travel, expect delays, there are a lot of road cuts…and there are a lot of detours in place,” York said.

Road signs are seen submerged under flood waters along the Hawkesbury River in suburban Windsor, July 4, 2022.

Jane Golding of the Bureau of Meteorology said parts of Greater Sydney received more rain than they would for the whole of July.

“The numbers are comparable to (the rainfall in) March. What is different about this event is that the rain has accumulated over several days, which increases the risk of river reactions,” he said. she stated.

Along with heavy rain, winds of up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour have been recorded on land, and gale force warnings are in place off the coast, where there are waves up to five meters (16 feet).

The dangerous conditions forced authorities to abandon efforts to rescue 21 crew members trapped on a Hong Kong-registered freighter, the Portland Bay, which was stranded without power off the coast of New South Wales. Instead, state police said a tug had been dispatched to tow the vessel further out to sea, where the Australian Maritime Safety Authority would attempt to restore power.

A freighter with 21 crew members on board remains stranded off the east coast of Australia on July 4, 2022.

Australia’s climate crisis

With the election of the federal Labor government in May, Australia is trying to chart a new course in response to the climate crisis. And on recent trips abroad to meet world leaders, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has gone out of his way to emphasize that the country is now taking climate change seriously.

“All the leaders I’ve met over the past few days have indicated that they welcome Australia’s change in position,” Albanese told reporters on Friday after meeting OECD leaders in Paris.

Australia has now officially committed to reducing its emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030, but after decades of inaction from previous governments, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Greg Mullins, former commissioner of Fire & Rescue NSW and group leader Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA), warned last month that with saturated catchments and dams at full capacity, more needed to be done to prepare for the floods.

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In a six-point plan presented to the government, the group said it was “short-sighted and unsustainable” for Australia to spend more money on disaster response and recovery than on measures to reduce the risk.

According to analysis published by the Australian Conservation Foundation ahead of the election, federal budget spending on environment and climate programs fell by almost a third under the previous coalition government.

Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie said Australia was “under-prepared” for climate disasters and needed to spend more money to build resilience in the most vulnerable regions.

“Only a very small fraction of disaster spending is spent on preparedness and building resilience. We would expect to see a significant shift in this ratio to see a much greater focus on preparedness given the increasing risk climate-fueled disasters,” she said.

New South Wales has its own climate change fund which spent more than A$224 million ($153 million) in 2020-21 on programs to help communities become more resilient – ​​including 140,000 people who live in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley, the most flood-prone place in the state.

Darren Osmotherly's Paradise Café in Lower Portland, NSW has been flooded four times in 18 months.

This includes cafe owner Osmotherly, who says authorities could do more to mitigate the risk of flooding by better managing dams so they don’t overflow and send more water into already flooded areas. He plans to bring together a local group to better understand how the dam works.

But right now there are more pressing issues.

Osmotherly says around 100 people are stuck in their homes along a 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) stretch of road near the cafe – including an 80-year-old man, who has packed his things and is waiting in his trailer help getting out.

So far, Osmotherly said he couldn’t see any local rescue services in the area and planned to take the old man home to sleep over.

“At the moment there is no road access here,” he said. “I have a lifeboat that we can get people in and out of. But there’s hardly anywhere to go.”

CNN’s Sandi Sidhu and Akanksha Sharma contributed to this report.