Book Review: Flood Country by Emily O’Gorman

Author, Emily O'Gorman holding her book, Flood Country

Author, Emily O’Gorman at the Sydney launch of her book, Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin (Collingwood, Vic: CSIRO Publishing, 2012).

I would never have read this book if it wasn’t for twitter.

Last year I came across the twitter stream of the University of Wollongong’s, Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (@AUSCCER) and those of researchers who work at the Centre.  I have enjoyed these tweets about geography and the environment . One day I noticed their tweets about the Sydney launch of a book written by one of the researchers at the Centre, Flood Country: an Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin.  Happily I was free at that time and could attend.

People remain connected to and dependent on the natural environment despite all our inventions designed to make us more comfortable.  However, our technology and structures have lulled us into thinking that we are immune from the vagaries of our environment.  We get a nasty shock when this veil is ripped from us in a fire, drought or flood and we are forced to confront a difficult reality.

It is no accident that I decided to read Flood Country this month.  I was going to read another book but the flooding in Queensland and northern New South Wales from ex-tropical cyclone Oswald prompted me to change my plans.

My mother remembers flooding along the Murray when she lived there in the late 1950s.  This scrap of newspaper from that period demonstrates a local community grappling with the knowledge that they need to plan for floods.

My mother remembers flooding along the Murray when she lived there in the late 1950s. This scrap of newspaper from that period demonstrates a local community grappling with the knowledge that they need to plan for floods.

In Flood Country author, Emily O’Gorman uses the case studies of four floods to examine the relationship between the European settlers and the environment in the Murray-Darling Basin.  She covers a broad sweep of European settlement starting with the flood in Gundagai in 1852, then moving on to the flooding of Bourke in 1890, Mildura in 1956 and the flooding in south-western Queensland in 1990.  In between the accounts of these floods are chapters that tease out particular issues of the period such as the differing approaches to regulation of water for the pastoral and mining industries in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the rise of the engineered solution to water management in the twentieth century.

Map reproduced with permission of Discover Murray River - Official Murray River Travel Website.

Map reproduced with permission of Discover Murray River –

The Murray-Darling Basin is an enormous network of rivers that covers large inland areas of four states, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.  I recommend that you take a moment to look at This map  showing the Basin so that you can appreciate demonstrates the size and location of the area.

Much of the time many of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin are mere trickles or completely dry, but when a monsoon trough or ex-cyclone enters the interior of eastern Australia these rivers can swell, merge and form huge moving inland lakes working their way south.  This combined with the floods caused by other weather sources in south-eastern Australia together with the snow melt in the Snowy Mountains can combine to form colossal flooding such as along the Murray-Darling river systems in 1956.

At the beginning of the book O’Gorman examines the meaning behind the word ‘flood’.  A ‘flood’, like its twin, the ‘drought’, raises visions of an unusual event, oftentimes a disastrous one.  Yet in Australia floods and droughts, while being irregular, can hardly be regarded as unusual.  Our climate is highly variable climate – that is normal.

At times during the book I was reminded of the comments by the psychiatrist Professor Alexander C McFarlane at the 2012 Australian Historical Association Conference in Adelaide.  He asked why we have not learned from previous disasters in Australia.  This issue percolated through Flood Country. O’Gorman examines the reasons why Gundagai was originally sited on a flood plain in the early years of European settlement of inland Australia and why Gundagai endured destructive floods in 1844, 1847, 1851 and 1852 before the hard decision was made to relocate the entire town.  O’Gorman’s comment regarding the inadequacy of the flood protection for the south-western Queensland town of Charleville in 2010 is surely pertinent to many people’s perception of disaster risk – they think that ‘the big one’ has already occurred and is unlikely to occur again (p. 220).

The interstate nature of the Murray-Darling Basin has been an enduring element complicating the management of the river system.  ‘Geo-political’ is a word more often used when discussing issues that cross national borders but O’Gorman uses the word aptly when discussing the determination of the borders between states and the subsequent negotiations about water policies between the governments of the Basin.

The birth of the nation was in many ways also the birth of large-scale river engineering in Australia.  This was no coincidence.  The potential uses and benefits of the Murray River and its tributaries to the riparian colonies of NSW, Victoria, and South Australia for navigation, water conservation and irrigation were a significant impetus to Federation in 1901, because intercolonial collaboration was essential to river planning on this shared waterway.

p. 119

The Snowy Mountains Scheme built after WWII is the largest engineering project undertaken in Australia. Water from this project feeds into the Murray and Murrimbidgee Rivers. This 1965 brochure describes the problem of drought but not flooding.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme built after WWII is the largest engineering project undertaken in Australia. Water from the scheme feeds into the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. This 1965 brochure describes the problem of drought but not flooding.

Droughts and floods, floods and droughts, droughts…We need to think holistically about environmental issues but if you are living in the midst of a sizzling drought it is hard to remember that the same land is ever going to see too much water again.  At the turn of the century Australia was in the midst of the crippling ‘federation drought’.   Little thought was given to the problem of floods.  Water management consisted of managing a shortage of water through irrigation schemes.

Water management during much of the twentieth century was approached as a problem of controlling the environment, hence small and large engineering works were favoured.  Dams, levees, and weirs have been employed on varying scales to the problems of drought and floods with limited success.  During the latter part of the twentieth century this development ethos was challenged by an ecological approach.

Throughout the book O’Gorman examines the tensions between local knowledge of floods and the more abstract knowledge of floods held by central governments.  Nowhere was this better done than in an enjoyable chapter titled, ‘Cunnamulla 1990: the town that did not flood’.  Here O’Gorman shares the story of the local flood expert Allan ‘AD’ Tannock and the police Superintendent Harry Edwards who was flown in to Cunnamulla from Brisbane to manage the flood response.  Their assessments differed and O’Gorman gives an absorbing account of how they worked together and the consequences for the town.

The purpose of Flood Country is to inform the reader.  It is not bedtime reading.  As would be expected from a book that has arisen from a PhD thesis and post-doctoral work this book is thoroughly researched.  There is liberal use of acronyms throughout the book. Despite the fact that I have a reasonable background for this book I found myself flicking regularly to the glossary at the front of the book wishing the author had stuck to convention and written these names in full in the text when they were first introduced.  In some cases the use of acronyms could have been avoided as in the case of acronyms not used often in the book and newspapers with only two words in their titles, eg Sunraysia Daily.  I was particularly confused when reading the section that discussed the Mississippi River Commission, MRC, and the River Murray Commission, RMC, especially as the latter is usually called the Murray River, not the River Murray.

At the beginning of the year I resolved to read more environmental histories.  Every person living in Australia is affected by past as well as current environmental policies and practices such as water management. A history of Australia without reference to our interaction with the environment would be incomplete.

O’Gorman’s expression of the place of environmental history in today’s Australia is are indeed apt so I will leave the final words to her:

Remnants of all of these past practices and management approaches are still present in the landscape.”

Physical traces and cultural legacies of past understandings and practices are another reason why histories are so important in understanding and addressing contemporary issues… It is out of this complex history that we will ultimately need to create liveable water futures.

p. 229


Other Links Relevant to this Book

I have found two open access articles written by Emily O’Gorman on this topic:

Other interesting links:

  • The Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research has an active blog, Conversations with AUSCCER, which is worth checking out.  I must say I’m impressed at this Centre’s efforts to connect with the public through social media.  I would never have heard of them if it was not for this effort.  Other Australian research centres should consider their example.
  • I was intrigued by the story of Allan ‘AD’ Tannock, the flood watch expert of Cunnamulla.  O’Gorman mentioned that he wrote a book about his knowledge of floods in the Cunnamulla region, The Warrego watershed : sixty years of research into the Warrego watershed, which seems to be available in only three libraries.  Tannock dedicated the book to Joan Leeds who he said played an instrumental part in helping him develop his understanding of the flooding in the area through her extensive understanding of flooding upriver from Cunnamulla.
  • Logo for Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012The Snowy Mountains Scheme was accompanied was built by many migrants as well as the Australian-born.  It was an enormous project; a network of sixteen dams, seven power stations and 80 aqueducts.  Much has been written about the technology employed as well as the environmental and cultural impact of the scheme such as these examples from the Migration Heritage Centre NSW and Environment and Heritage NSW.
  • There are many videos available online that illustrate the twentieth century history of flooding mentioned in this book such as this series of three videos of the 1956 flood along the Murray River.
  • I have just discovered Ian Lunt’s blog which is about vegetation ecology.  His post, Location location location: the future of environmental history, is well worth reading.

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

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