Sydney floods: Climate crisis becomes the new normal in NSW, Australia’s most populous state

But for the fourth time in 18 months, cafe owner Darren Osmotherley is rushing to move his gear to higher ground as floodwaters surge across greater Sydney after days of heavy rain.

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

When Osmotherly opened the café 15 years ago to give disabled people on boats an easy place to moor 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.

He said, “We built them all flood-proof to face the floods now and then, but for the sake of four floods…”.

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

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 (1.6 feet) of rain has inundated parts of eastern New South Wales in the past 48 hours, with spills from several levees triggering flood warnings across the region.

In western Sydney, the Warragamba Dam – Australia’s largest urban reservoir – began flooding at 2am on Sunday, and at its peak its walls were flooded with 515GL – the same amount of water as Sydney Harbour.

A spokesperson for the state water authority said the dam does not have a flood mitigation component, so no water was released before the rains, which occurred when the state’s dam network was already 97% full. He said the dam was not responsible for the flooding.

“It’s a very unusual weather event,” the spokesperson said. “The Warragamba has infiltrated a certain river system for sure, but there are whole large areas of Sydney that have been flooded and are not downstream of the Warragamba.”

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It’s a stunning turnaround just 15 years ago when the country 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 caused more rain, and the Met Office says there’s a 50-50 chance of it forming later in 2022 — twice the normal probability. The climate crisis is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of both La Nina and El Nino, causing droughts – meaning that if La Nina forms again this year, there could be more rain.

Houses and roads are submerged in the swollen Hawkesbury River in Windsor, northwest Sydney, July 4, 2022.

Thousands urged to evacuate

For locals in Greater Sydney, flooding has become a recurring nightmare.

Many are still recovering from the recent floods in March, when many of the same areas were inundated, forcing businesses to close, and rescue workers wading through the spoiled mud to help trapped residents.

The event caused $4.8 billion in losses, making it the third most expensive disaster ever in the country, according to the Australian Insurance Council.

Carlin York, Commissioner of New South Wales Emergency Services (SES), warned on Monday that hundreds of millimeters of rain could fall over the weekend, with more still to come.

“We are not out of danger yet in this important aerial event,” York said. “I would like to remind people to please make reasonable decisions that keep you and your family safe.”

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

“Please avoid any essential travel,” York said. “If you have to travel please expect delays, there are a lot of roads blocked … and there are a lot of diversions.”

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

Some areas of greater Sydney received more rain than they did in the entire month of July, Jane Golding, of the Bureau of Meteorology, said.

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“The numbers are comparable with (precipitation in) March. The different thing about this event is that the rains were stacked over several days, and this increases the risks of the rivers responding,” she said.

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

Dangerous conditions have forced authorities to abandon efforts to rescue 21 crew members trapped aboard a Hong Kong-registered cargo ship, Portland Bay, which was stranded without power off the coast of New South Wales. Instead, state police said a tugboat had been sent to tow the ship out to sea, where the Australian Maritime Safety Authority will attempt to regain strength.

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

Climate crisis in Australia

with the Election of the Federal Labor Party In May, Australia attempts to chart a new course in response to the climate crisis. And on recent overseas trips to meet world leaders, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has taken pains to ensure that the country now takes climate change seriously.

“Every leader I’ve met in recent days has indicated that they welcome Australia’s change of position,” Albanese told reporters on Friday after meeting leaders of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.

Australia has now formally signed on to cut emissions 43% from 2005 levels by 2030, but after decades of inaction on the part of previous governments, there is a lot of work to be done.

Greg Mullins, former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner and leader of the Emergency Leaders Group for Climate Action (ELCA), warned last month that with watersheds saturated and dams plugged, more work is needed to 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” because Australia spends more money on disaster response and recovery than on risk reduction measures.

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According to the analysis released by Conservation Australia ahead of the election, federal budget spending on environment and climate programs fell by nearly a third under the previous coalition government.

Amanda Mackenzie, chief executive of the Climate Council, says Australia is “unprepared” for climate catastrophes, and needs to spend more money building resilience in the most vulnerable regions.

“Only a very small portion of disaster spending is committed to preparedness and resilience building. We would expect to see a significant shift in that proportion to see a much greater focus on preparedness given the rising climate-fueled disaster risk,” she said.

NSW has its own Climate Change Fund which has spent more than A$224 million ($153 million) in 2020-2021 on programs to help communities become more resilient – including 140,000 people living in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley. The state’s most vulnerable location to flooding.

Darren Osmotherly'  s Paradise Café in Lower Portland, New South Wales, was flooded four times in 18 months.

That includes coffee shop owner Osmotherly, who says authorities can do more to mitigate flood risks by managing dams better so they don’t overflow and sending more water to already flooded areas. He plans to bring a local group together to better understand how the dam works.

But for now, there are more pressing issues.

Osmotherly says about 100 people are trapped in their homes along a 10-kilometre (6.2 mi) stretch of road near the café — including an 80-year-old, who has packed his luggage and is waiting in his convoy to help get out.

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

“Right now, there’s no way to get here,” he said. “I have a rescue boat where we can get people in and out. But pretty much there’s nowhere to go.”

CNN’s Sandy Seidu and Akanksha Sharma contributed to this report.

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