Australia has declared the devastating flooding along its east coast a national emergency, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced protests during his visit to the heart of the disaster zone.
The emergency declaration, which was set up after Australia’s destructive 2019 bushfires, will help cut red tape and speed up aid amid criticism about a slow response to the floods in which at least 21 people have died.
Demonstrators demanded more help and stronger climate action as Morrison toured the flood-wrecked city of Lismore, which endured some of the worst floodings in a near two-week deluge along the east coast.
“We need help!” protesters chanted, with many holding placards with messages blaming the climate crisis including: “Coal and gas did this” and “This is what climate change looks like.”
Television footage showed some people gathered in front of an emergency operations centre that Morrison visited, yelling “the water is rising, no more compromising” and “fossil fuel floods”.
Floodwaters across much of the east coast retreated as rainfall eased on Wednesday, but major flood warnings were still in force in some areas including at the Hawkesbury River west of Sydney – the country’s largest city and the capital of New South Wales (NSW) state.
Facing criticism for its handling of the second major floods in a year, Morrison defended his government’s climate record by stressing its commitment to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“We are dealing with a different climate to the one we were dealing with before. I think that’s just an obvious fact,” Morrison said. “And Australia is getting hard to live in because of these disasters.”
But climate activists are demanding more aggressive action.
Morrison, who is trailing in polls ahead of a federal election before May, kept media away from his meetings with flood victims, which he said was to protect their privacy.
Speaking to reporters, Morrison linked the devastation to climate change, which he said had also caused earlier bushfire catastrophes, but he went on to say the greater challenge was reducing other countries’ emissions.
What will save people is flood mitigation works, rather than tougher curbs on Australia’s emissions, he said.
Officials said military personnel deployed to the region to assist the clean-up operations would be more than doubled to 4,000.
The government has paid out some A$385m ($282m) to flood victims nationally in the past week, and Morrison said aid would be increased in Lismore and surrounding areas, to provide food and shelter, mental health support, and legal and business support.
Frustrated residents in the Northern Rivers, with no access to power and internet for several days, have blamed authorities for the slow speed and scale of relief efforts.