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As devastating floods raise wide-ranging health concerns, experts stress importance of planning for future climate events

***This article was updated on 13 January to include a response from the WA Health Department***

Alison Barrett writes:

Devastating floods in the Kimberley region of Western Australia will have immediate and longer term consequences for the health and wellbeing of communities and also will have far-reaching impacts upon health and social services.

Experts have called on federal and state governments to ensure that the needs of affected communities are prioritised, now and beyond the acute phase of the disaster, and to ensure infrastructure planning for rural and remote areas responds to the increasing risk of climate-related events, such as flooding.

The National Rural Health Alliance CEO Susanne Tegen told Croakey: “It will be important that the people on the ground are not given lip service and delayed solutions, which impact health and mental health beyond the initial and very public announcements of assistance, when the impact lasts many years after the initial shock.”

Dr Richard Yin, a GP and board member of the Doctors for the Environment Australia, told Croakey that the floods have also caused massive damage to critical infrastructure including roads and bridges, putting vital supplies at risk.

He stressed the importance, in the aftermath of the floods, of seeking input from local communities to co-create and plan for future extreme weather events in a way that builds and supports community resilience to help communities become less dependent on the need for external help in times of disaster.

“The Kimberley floods, hopefully will be a reminder for our decision makers in WA to have a focus on the future, ensuring that communities come back more resilient with and that we have in place infrastructure planning that considers more frequent and larger flood events,” he said.

Calls for action

Roland Sapsford, CEO of the Climate and Health Alliance, told Croakey that the Alliance’s “hearts go out to all people affected by the Kimberley floods”.

“This disaster shows yet again that Australia is not prepared to deal with intensifying climate disasters, despite a decade of advocacy from the health sector,” he said.

The isolation of whole communities from safe water, food, shelter and healthcare infrastructure will have long term effects on health and wellbeing as the harms do not recede with the floodwaters. People are still at risk of injury, waterborne disease, mental distress and more, all exacerbated by a lack of access to adequate medical care, according to Sapsford.

“Yet again, remote communities and Traditional Owners living on Country have been disproportionately impacted. The experience and resilience of these communities must be centred in the flood recovery response to help adapt for future disasters,” Sapsford said.

WA Greens Senator and Yamatji-Noonga woman Dorinda Cox said in a statement that the Kimberley region would need all funding supports to help them build back.

“There’s a huge amount of work ahead to rebuild the lives and livelihoods of the communities in the Kimberley. We must guarantee that those families who lost everything do not suffer extended periods of displacement and are able to return home and be on Country as soon as it’s safe to do so,” she said.

Cox also emphasised the commitment the Albanese Government made at COP27 to support the loss and damage fund for “nations most vulnerable to the climate crisis”, adding that the commitment should extend to regional, remote and First Nations’ communities.

“The Albanese Government is committed to supporting our Pacific neighbours on the existential issue of loss and damage associated with the catastrophic effects of climate change. Now it must demonstrate that commitment to the First Peoples of the Kimberley who are impacted by a worsening climate.

“The Australian Government took a leadership role in the final days of negotiation at the COP27 in Egypt, when delegates were struggling to agree on how to fund and support poor and vulnerable nations to adapt to climate change. Now, they need to come good and start funding impacted communities in their own backyard to do the same.”

Mental health concerns

As highlighted from the Lismore and Northern Rivers floods of 2022, the mental health of community members is of great concern.

Professor Anne Poelina, a Yimardoowarra woman from Martuwarra/Fitzroy River in Western Australia, told Croakey that one of the big current health impacts from the Fitzroy flood includes mental distress.

With Bureau of Meterology predictions for the next ten years of more intense periods of rain, along with sea and temperature rises, “it can’t be business as usual,” Poelina said.

Poelina told Croakey that right now improved coordination of services and disaster relief is needed, as well as monitoring of water and sanitation services “to ensure no contamination to people and communities”.

“The Shire of Derby West Kimberley needs to have the resources to be the major coordinating centre, not just for now but for long term planning,” Poelina added.

Community responses

As has occurred with other recent natural disasters in Australia, local community organisations and members have swung into swift action.

The Fitzroy Crossing Notice Board Facebook Page has been active with updates on road closures, health services and support relief.

Local organisations, including Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council and Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre have launched fundraising campaigns to support people affected by the floods.

During a visit to the flooded Kimberley region on Monday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the “Commonwealth would provide any support requested by the Western Australian Government”.

Federal Minister for Emergency Management Murray Watt said “the rainfall in the north-west of the country was extraordinary”.

“This sheer amount of water that is flowing through the region is just staggering and the impact this is having on these communities is immense,” he said.

The devastating floods from ex-Tropical Cyclone Ellie in WA and NT has put a spotlight on how easily remote communities can become isolated.

Communities in both states have been isolated by the deluge of rain, including Timber Creek in NT and Fitzroy Crossing in WA, raising concerns about disruptions to vital supplies to and from these communities.

Northern Territory

One of Australia’s most remote medical practices, Pintupi Homeland Health Service, is feeling ongoing impacts from last week’s heavy rainfall in the Northern Territory.

More than 500 kilometres west of Alice Springs in the Great Western Desert, the Walungurru/Kintore community experienced heavy rainfall when ex-Tropical Cyclone Ellie travelled back into the NT before dissipating.

Health Services Manager Richard Burrowes told Croakey that while the rainfall caused minimal damage to infrastructure in the community, there was a lot of mud and surface water lying about, leaving the main road in and out of Kintore closed with unsafe road conditions.

This meant that medication supplies – some already low due to Australia-wide shortages – were impacted.

Burrowes said they have managed “the best [they] can, by finding alternatives” and the health of community members has not really been affected.

However, the weather conditions meant delays in one patient not being able to fly out for treatment in Alice Springs and other residents stuck in town, not being able to return to community.

Burrowes said the road head to Kintore community need some work – “there’s some pretty rough spots” that need to be sealed, he said.

In coming days and weeks, Burrowes said they would be on alert for water-borne illnesses that tend to arise after floods and large volumes of stagnant water.

Kimberley region

A statement from Nindilingarri Cultural Health Services on 7 January highlighted that while many communities in the Fitzroy Crossing region had been impacted by the floods, they currently have enough food and medication supplies.

High-risk patients, including renal patients, have been evacuated to Derby, Broome, Port Hedland or Newman. Pregnant mothers are being monitored in community by Western Australian Country Health Service.

As of 11 January, the Nindilingarri Cultural Health Services is open.

Public health risks

Rex O’Rourke, Regional Director of the WA Country Health Service, told Croakey that by working in close partnership with other health agencies in the region, “we’ve been able to offer a coordinated response that has seen minimal disruption to healthcare delivery”.

He said: “As the floodwaters begin to subside, we will be just as committed to supporting Kimberley communities as part of what will undoubtedly be a complex and long-term recovery effort.”

In the early stages of the response, O’Rourke’s service worked to evacuate several high-risk patients to ensure their care continued in the event hospital operations were impacted.

“Across the weekend, we worked with Derby Aboriginal Health Service to deliver much needed medicine and supplies to impacted communities,” he said.

The Service is working to manage the public health risk and concentrating efforts on ensuring communities recognise the health risks associated with floodwaters, including having key messages translated into language.

“We’d like to take this opportunity to remind communities not to go into floodwaters; floodwater is dirty and can be mixed with toilet water which can make you very sick,” he said.

“Floodwaters are often fast-moving and full of debris, so you could get hurt. Make sure you wash your hands with clean, warm water and soap or hand sanitiser, especially before eating and drinking and if your toilet isn’t working, don’t use it.”

Other advice included:

  • If you’ve been caught in floodwaters, wash and cover any cuts and scratches, change out of your clothes and remember to wear closed-in shoes
  • Clean up debris, rubbish and food scraps to stop them becoming a breeding ground for flies as well as attracting rats and mice
  • Bin any food or medicine that has gotten dirty in the flood water
  • Protect yourself from mosquitos by using a spray repellent or wearing long and loose clothes.

Short and long-term solutions needed

The National Rural Health Alliance said it was deeply concerned by the severe floods experienced across the Kimberley and expressed sympathy to the remote communities affected.

There have been a series of “once in a lifetime events” to already stressed and stretched remote communities, which will feel this impact for many years, indeed generations to come, said Susanne Tegen, the Alliance’s CEO.

“The Alliance is concerned about the impact the inclement weather will have on rural and urban centres and their communities, including food shortages, price hikes, lack of telephone coverage and connection to families, airborne disease and logistics delay in the transport of goods as this will affect their wellbeing and mental health…. let alone the destruction and damage of their homes and community buildings,” she told Croakey.

“I am concerned for these communities, considering the social and economic costs. The ripple effect it causes to the greater and urban community is also significant.

“Rural and remote industries, including agriculture, mining, tourism, manufacturing and retail services, all contribute a major part of Australia’s GDP and the current and significant change in weather patterns will severely affect these industries, causing nationwide challenges.”

Tegen said the Alliance calls for action from government, health and medical services, and others working directly and indirectly in rural Australia, to implement short- and long-term solutions to the impact of the floods fac