Coast with the most
As well as the Brisbane Festival and the Brisbane Writers Festival, Coast to Coast 2012 – Living on the Edge came to town last week. This four-day event has been held every two years since 1994 and brings together delegates from science, academia, policy-making, government and management to 'promote best-practice sustainable development and management of the coastal zone through the exchange of ideas, knowledge and experience'. I attended a debate that was open to the public: Coastal Development – Coasting Along or Crisis?
ABC Radio National broadcaster Antony Funnell put big coastal issues before a panel comprising Canadian historian Ronald Wright; policy advisor Professor Bruce Thom of Sydney University, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists; Professor Hugh Possingham, conservation biologist, public policy advisor and founding member of the Wentworth Group; Mark Gibbs, formerly of CSIRO and now coastal infrastructure and management consultant; and Peta Ashworth, academic and leader of CSIRO's Science into Society Group.
The debate focused on three main areas: first up was Rules, Rights and Responsibilities. In New South Wales there has been a significant change in coastal zone management, power having been devolved to local councils who are out of their depth – and that's before sea levels rise. They don't have the latest technical information or sufficient funds to project and manage the impact of climate change on their area ('a big call for a small council' – Hugh Possingham). There was more than a suggestion of the abrogation of state responsibility and the downsizing of the state's technical capacity. Prof Possingham stressed the need for big Federal government (a national land-use plan would be a good start) and top-down, longterm coastal management funded by higher taxes.
Coastal Development and the Environment included a discussion of the 'progress trap', in which so-called advances such as the construction of levees or dredging are found to have limitations – as seen in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Development is often in low-lying areas, and when natural disasters occur, flooding distributes industrial chemicals, pesticides and plastic debris throughout the biosphere. There is an argument for a 'managed retreat' of environmental control in coastal regions – allowing erosion, for example – but this isn't always popular among coast dwellers. By the sea wasn't always the place to be, however. In the past, only fishermen and other relevant workers lived there. They tended to have a greater connection with weather and the processes of coastal geomorphology than the millions who now crave the beach life and messing about in boats.
Finally, the panel made suggestions about Preparing for the Future. These included greater funding to make all resources available for all those involved in coastal zone management and to ease the cost of capital infrastructure (it costs 40 per cent more to build a road in Australia than in the United States). Sustainability has to be part of decision-making: there is a better grasp of the risks to canal estates in Tasmania and Victoria than Queensland, for instance. And give local councils a mandate to 'preserve and protect' (Ronald Wright). Norway has a fund for dealing with future environmental crises, which sounds like a good idea for a 'land... of droughts and flooding rains'. Barrages around ports might be one preventative measure: it was pointed out that the idea for a Thames Barrage took 30 years to come to fruition following the east coast floods of the 1950s. The reconstruction of coastal habitats and the management of ecosystems to re-establish and protect vulnerable species is obviously desirable. There has been a serious decline in the numbers of shorebirds and waders migrating along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, and rapid habitat loss is believed to be a major factor.
Panellists were of one voice when it came to the need for 'strategic longsight'. We can't just hope that everything will turn out OK; and we need to harness the fear that it may well not be. Short-term business deals and electoral terms are not conducive to rethinking our obsession with constant economic growth. Big government needs to draw hard lines in the sand if Australia's coastline is to be preserved as the wild and wonderful place it still is in large part.
A report by the Climate Commission this week has predicted that 4000 homes on the Gold Coast and 2000 on the Sunshine Coast might be lost during the next 50-80 years as a result of rising sea levels. Housing developments are still being built in both areas, however. The 2011 flood in Brisbane caused greater damage than the previous inundation in 1974, even though water levels were not as high, because development had proceeded at a pace on the flood plain in the intervening years.
I still remember regions of the Mediterranean coast when they were relatively undeveloped – the most easterly part of Spain's Costa del Sol, for example, and certain Greek islands in the Aegean. Many areas, however, have been been well and truly spoiled since. It's hard not to look at the Gold Coast high-risers or the littering of Fraser Island and conclude that the same thing is happening here.
It would indeed be a tragedy if Australia's magnificent coast was not protected from development today and natural catastrophe tomorrow. The best bits, of course, have the most to lose.
Image at top of page: the Gold Coast, Queensland. Beaches and bays, from the top: mangroves, Moreton Bay, Queensland; Fraser Island, Queensland; Masked Lapwing; Pied Oystercatcher; juvenile White-bellied Sea-Eagle; next two, Rainbow Beach, Queensland; Main Beach, Torquay, Victoria; next two, Tallow and Belongil beaches, Byron Bay, New South Wales; next three, Bay of Fires, Coles Bay and Rocky Cape, Tasmania