Climate change refugees in the developed world

Climate change is becoming more tangible in the developed world and Australia is experiencing its own internally displaced communities, its own climate change refugees.

In the wake of the bushfires of 2019, the pandemic and a housing crisis, further disaster unfolded in February 2022 with severe and major flooding in the Northern Rivers NSW.

In Lismore and Mullumbimby, these catastrophic floods caused landslides, washed out causeways and bridges, and isolated residents – inundating them with kilometres of brown, contaminated water, and cutting them off from the nearest Evacuation Centres.

When the flood peaked, all communications in the region were blacked out, leaving the evacuation of the stranded thousands largely to locals, who rescued their neighbours in private boats and kayaks. Some people died or were swept away – many people were left homeless.

It was up to the community then, to step up to help, house and feed the 316 internally displaced people, with the informal support of the Returned Services League (RSL) and the local publican. When the water subsided, teams of volunteers walked the neighbourhoods to clean the streets and feed displaced community. 

Donations from the wider community poured in – all manner of food, free transport, pet-minding, livestock food-drops, cleaning and gutting people’s houses, sorting home goods, providing emergency housing, yoga classes, massages and childcare. Barriers came down and people shared food, compassion, their personal belongings. Privacy was pushed aside. Everyone was working/volunteering for the flood recovery efforts, coordinating with community groups.

The water treatment plant was affected, the Brunswick River and ocean churned with flood waste, sewage and e-coli. Fridges and cars remain wedged in thick mud all through the catchment. Damaged whitegoods, mattresses, couches, and furniture emptied onto the mud-slopped streets.

When government support arrived, it was too late and it failed to meet community expectation – they were under-resourced for much-needed infrastructural support, and focused on rubbish pick-up rather than rebuilding roads.

The conviction or expectation that the government should ‘provide’ all, in effect, immobilised people. And the failure of services generated anger in the community, which was taken out on the weary first responders, local council and organisation staff. Stressed relationships broke down between community groups and leading agencies. Groups ignored and derailed each other, vented on social media pages about competing needs. Spontaneous, informal response efforts often clashed with formal emergency services. 

When the system failed at both Federal and State levels, government agencies were unable to respond due to protocols such as Risk Management assessments. This meant that, in order to be effective, community members had to take on high levels of risk, staffing, major communications and emergency housing. Spontaneous volunteer response teams found themselves operating with no management, insurance or training, and with limited support from Council and emergency personnel cut off by road closures or landslides.

When Government is not heavily relied on, in times of crisis, as in the Pacific Islands, communities may actually be more ‘resilient’ because they are used to looking after themselves. Perhaps a system where the expectation is fully on Government Agencies to provide/respond is paralysing.  

One Mullumbimby resident reflected:

A centralized government has no understanding of our smaller, nuanced communities, and logistically cannot respond immediately as needed and in time. 

Community will always be the first responders, they are on the ground, they are emotionally and physically invested. Responses need to be localised and the community needs to be enabled and supported to act. Community resilience is developed over time and through challenging experiences together. 

I observed the rare beauty of people stepping up and taking responsibility for their community where there were gaps. We need more of this in non-disaster times. Personal and communal responsibility and less buck-passing.”

In this vastly changing world, local communities and governments need to build resilience by listening to the science, and thinking holistically and planning together – to act, invest in and build community structures that can respond immediately and from the ground up.

By P4R various authors

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