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Rising waters: Disadvantage and flood management strategies

The VCOSS Submission to Melbourne Water’s Draft Flood Management Strategy warns that the social and economic context in which floods occur cannot be ignored, and that any Flood Management Strategy must recognise the differing demographic profiles of areas and communities at risk of flooding across Port Phillip and Westernport.

With more exposure to the hazards of extreme weather events like flood being predicted for the future and the effects of these type of emergencies and disasters falling disproportionately on disadvantaged, or socially vulnerable people, it is important that policies and programs address the needs of socially vulnerable people, and that the Victorian government works to resolve the causes of their vulnerability, before emergencies arise.

Flood can be a fast and dramatic or prolonged crisis that can result in long term and pervasive economic and social impacts. The damage to property, inundation of homes, businesses and community facilities in urbanised areas, as well as loss of livestock, machinery and fencing in rural areas can have a profound affect in all communities affected. Combined with flooding of transport infrastructure, floods present challenges for everyone involved.

For people who are already facing disadvantage, the impacts of emergencies and disasters can be overwhelming. VCOSS’ 2014 report Disadvantage and disaster; Social vulnerability in emergency management stated that examples of disadvantage that can deliver a devastating blow to socially vulnerable people and communities in disasters include people having:

  • lack of choice in deciding where they live, and often being disproportionately concentrated in areas at high risk of negative environmental impacts
  • fewer economic resources to assist with preparing for and managing extreme weather, including being able to take out insurance
  • chronic physical and mental health conditions that affect their mobility and resilience
  • barriers to accessing mainstream sources of information about impending danger such as language barriers, remoteness, and poverty (no mobile phones or internet access)
  • need for greater support in evacuation and recovery, including to mobilise wheelchairs and maintain ongoing access to care and medication in the immediate aftermath of a disaster
  • less of a voice and being less able to influence decision-makers such as governments

Communities with both high social vulnerability and high exposure to flooding may be the most flood disadvantaged, leading to a greater loss in wellbeing in these areas than elsewhere.

The financial capacity of households affects both how quickly and how effectively people can recover from an emergency event like flood. Low-income Australians, including the so-called ‘working poor’, those living on income support, refugees, renters, young adults and pensioners often have the least resources to afford the protection and security provided by preparing in the first place. The capacity to purchase insurance, secure temporary accommodation, repair or build a new house, buy new clothes and household goods, access ongoing medical treatment and take time off work clearly contributes to the recovery of a person or a household.

Housing is a significant issue in areas affected by flood, particularly where there is an extremely limited supply of public and rental housing. For example permanent residents of caravan parks can have very limited resources to fall back on if their homes are flooded. Residents of rooming or boarding houses, public housing or other low-income housing may similarly have limited resources.

Many residents affected by flooding may need to relocate out of their community to stay with family or friends. While this is an essential coping strategy, the long distances involved can contribute to high transport costs for some families and places financial strain on some households providing this support. In addition, people impacted by flood can remain dislocated from their communities, living in their damaged homes or temporary accommodation and facing uncertain financial futures.

Homes that may have been damaged but are still habitable may have no wall or floor coverings, due in part to inadequacy of insurance coverage and delays in processing claims. There can be concerns about health impacts as winter approaches and the likely high cost of energy bills due to running inefficient heaters in uninsulated and unsealed properties. There can also be concerns about exposure to mould and the effect of this on respiratory conditions, especially for older people.

The demographic profiles of communities in the Port Phillip area vary widely, from the Bellarine Peninsula through Geelong and to the south western suburbs of Melbourne, to Patterson Lakes and Rye in the east. Each of these areas differs significantly in their socio-economic profiles. The recent Jesuit Social Services and Catholic Social Services report Dropping off the edge 2015: Persistent communal disadvantage in Australia, shows for example while Frankston is one of Victoria’s most disadvantaged suburbs, Portsea is one of its most advantaged. In addition it shows that most communities in the Westernport area face significant levels of disadvantage.

In its submission VCOSS has encouraged Melbourne Water to ensure that the Flood Management Strategy recognises flood disadvantage, including social vulnerability and the differing demographic profiles of areas and communities at risk of flooding across Port Phillip and Westernport.