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

But for the fourth time in 18 months, pub owner Darren Osmotherly is rushing to move his equipment to higher ground as water rises over Greater Sydney after days of torrential rain.

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

When Osmotherly opened the cafe 15 years ago to give disabled people 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’ve built it all flood-proof to handle the occasional flood, but to have four floods…” he said.

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

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

But what used to be a once-in-a-generation event has become commonplace and raises questions about the long-term sustainability of flood-prone communities.

More than half a meter of rain (1.6 feet) has drenched parts of eastern New South Wales in the past 48 hours, with leaks from numerous dams triggering flood warnings across the region.

To the west of Sydney, the Warragamba Dam — Australia’s largest urban reservoir — began overflowing at 2 a.m. Sunday, and at its peak overflowed 515 gigaliter of water — the same amount of water held in Sydney Harbour.

A spokesman for the state water board says the dam has no flood mitigation component, so no water was released prior to the downpour, which came when the state’s dam network was already 97% full. He said the dam was not responsible for the flooding.

“It’s quite an extraordinary weather event. Warragamba certainly flows in a particular river system, but there are whole vast tracts of Sydney that are under water and not downstream from Warragamba,” the spokesman said.

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

But this year, the La Nina weather system generated more rainfall, and the Bureau of Meteorology says there’s a 50-50 chance of it forming later in 2022 — twice the normal chance. The climate crisis is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of both La Nina and El Nino, causing drought — meaning if La Nina does form again this year, even more rain could fall.

Houses and roads have been flooded by the swollen Hawkesbury River in Windsor, northwest of Sydney, on July 4, 2022.

Thousands called to evacuate

Flooding has become a recurring nightmare for locals in Greater Sydney.

Many are still recovering from the latest flood in March, when many of the same areas were flooded, forcing businesses to close and rescue workers wading through putrid mud to help trapped residents.

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

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

“We are not yet out of danger in this important weather event,” York said. “I would like to remind people to make wise decisions that protect you and your family.”

More than 70 evacuation orders were issued Monday for the wider Sydney area, covering more than 30,000 people, and just days into the school holidays when many families were due to travel, millions of others were advised to stay at home.

“Avoid all essential travel. If you do have to travel, be aware that you will have delays, many roads are closed … and there are many diversions,” York said.

On July 4, 2022, road signs along the Hawkesbury River in the Windsor suburb can be seen underwater.

Jane Golding, of the Bureau of Meteorology, said some areas of Greater Sydney had seen more rain than in the entire month of July.

“The numbers are similar to (the rainfall in) March. What’s different in this case is that the rain has accumulated over several days, and that increases the risk of how rivers react,” she said.

Along with heavy rainfall, onshore winds of up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour have been recorded and there are storm strength warnings offshore, where waves are up to five meters (16 feet).

The dangerous conditions forced authorities to halt their efforts to rescue 21 crewmen 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 tugboat was being sent to tow the vessel further out to sea, where the Australian Maritime Safety Authority would attempt to restore power.

A cargo ship with 21 crew 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.

“Every leader I’ve met in recent days has indicated that he welcomes Australia’s changed position,” Albanian told reporters on Friday after meeting OECD leaders in Paris.

Australia has now officially signed up to cut emissions by 43% from 2005 levels by 2030, but after decades of inactivity by previous governments, there is still a lot more work to be done.

Greg Mullins, former Fire & Rescue NSW Commissioner and the leader of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) group, warned last month that with watersheds becoming saturated and dams full, more needs to be done to anticipate prepare for 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 on disaster relief and recovery than on measures to reduce risk.

According to a pre-election analysis released by the Australian Conservation Foundation, federal budget spending on environmental and climate programs fell by nearly a third under the previous coalition government.

Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie says Australia is “unprepared” for climate disasters and needs to spend more money building resilience in the most vulnerable regions.

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

New South Wales has its own Climate Change Fund that spent more than 224 million Australian dollars ($153 million) in 2020-21 on programs to help communities become more resilient – including the 140,000 people living in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley, the the state’s most vulnerable location to flooding.

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

So is cafe owner Osmotherly, who says authorities could do more to reduce flood risk by better managing dams so they don’t overflow and send more water to already flooded areas. He plans to get a local group together to better understand how the dam works.

But right now there are more pressing issues.

Osmotherly says about 100 people are trapped in their homes along a 10-kilometer (6.2 mi) road near the cafe – including an 80-year-old man, who has packed his things and is waiting in his caravan for help to get out. .

So far, Osmotherly said he can’t see any local rescue services in the area and plans to bring the older man home to sleep at his house.

“Right now there is no road access here,” he said. “I have a lifeboat where we can get people in and out. But we can hardly go anywhere.’

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

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