A journey through the valley

22 June 2020 | Posted In: #135 Winter 2020,

A project to help social-housing tenants in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley become resilient to emergencies has been beset by them. As TRACY HAMILTON reports, first bushfires, then floods — now COVID-19.

With its picturesque river and mountain views, the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley is ideally located well away from the hustle and bustle of Sydney. The appeal of the region is reflected by the presence of a rapidly growing population. What is largely unknown about the area, however, is the presence of a very high flood risk.

According to the Insurance Council of Australia, the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley holds the highest flood risk in New South Wales — perhaps even Australia. This is due to a combination of the unique landscape of the valley and the size of the population that resides there. There are five major river systems flowing into the valley, as well as a narrow gorge that sits between it and the ocean. This topography traps the floodwaters and causes them to pool when sustained heavy rain impacts the region.

The original plan

A priority of the Hawkesbury-Nepean Flood Strategy — led by Infrastructure NSW — is to identify and work with communities deemed vulnerable to the flood risk. One group identified as “highly vulnerable” are social-housing communities. Much of the valley’s social-housing stock is built in areas that are exposed to flooding. Along with this, many tenants have complex health needs, are from low socio-economic backgrounds, and would struggle to self-evacuate.

In response, Inner Sydney Voice received funding from Infrastructure NSW to implement the Get Ready for Flood Social Housing Sector project. The core aims were to strengthen the social-housing sector’s resilience to flooding in the valley and to increase the resilience of the region’s tenant population.

Learning through the project

Phase one of the project, occurring in 2019, focused on establishing the Social Housing Community Resilience Network (SHCRN). The network brought together representatives from a range of stakeholders including the tenant population, housing providers, emergency services, community sector, and local council. Its aim was to strengthen coordination between key stakeholders in highlighting capacities, vulnerabilities, opportunities, and challenges.

SHCRN met monthly and every meeting highlighted the key issues that needed to be addressed before solid ground could be made on the aims the project set out to achieve. When the end of the year came, it seemed as if little progress had been made. What was clear, however, was that we were much more aware of the reality of the context we were working in.

The current context

We are now in phase two of the project, and 2020 has certainly been a year of the unexpected. It began with devastating bushfires, followed by massive floods. Then came COVID-19. These events have caused widespread disruption, put everyday life on hold, and changed the way business is conducted for those services still operating.

The project’s focus through all this has been to better understand the constantly changing environment; to identify ways to make progress on the project’s aims; and to adapt to the opportunities and the challenges that arise. What has been highlighted is the need to think about community resilience to disasters in a holistic way. A concept of shared responsibility encapsulates the most important work that needs to be done moving forward. There are many stakeholders with diverse strengths, capabilities, networks, and knowledge. The key is to figure out how each stakeholder can work together in a coordinated way to contribute to community resilience.

A way forward

Reflecting on this project to date, things have consistently not gone to plan. What we assumed was in place, was not. We overestimated the existing capacity of different networks; external factors have disrupted planning and implementation. However, we are all learning through this process and that is valuable in and of itself. To quote T.S. Eliot: “The journey, not the destination, matters”. This can be applied to strengthening community resilience in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley. There has been a strong focus on reaching the end goal, but perhaps what is more important are the lessons that are learned along the way. And, this year more than most, there has been an awful lot to learn.

For more information on the Get Ready for Flood Project please contact the Project Officer, Tracy Hamilton, at resilience@innersydneyvoice.org.au or 0411 747 194. Tracy works Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.