During the nineteenth century, European explorers searched in vain for Australia’s mythical inland sea. They never found it. 

What they discovered were vast deserts covering 70% of the landmass. To this day, Australia is officially classified as the driest continent on earth, making water one of the country’s most precious resources.

However, Australia is also a land of extremes. When rain arrives to break years of drought, it does so with spectacular results. Hundreds of millimetres can fall in a matter of hours, causing baren riverbeds to burst to life. As creeks and streams break their banks, town and cities become inundated. 

During the twentieth century, city authorities started responding to this risk to life and property by constructing vast dams to hold back upstream water flows. Of course, these dams also play another vital role, capturing valuable drinking water. What may seem an abundant resource one year can quickly become a scarce commodity the next.

For instance, during the 2000s, the millennium drought saw Brisbane go without a reliable in-flow of water for more than five years. Dam capacity fell below 20%, leading to severe usage restrictions and the construction of a desalination plant.

On the flip side, even the largest dams have their limits, and when they do, authorities need to decide when and how to release water.

It’s this ‘decision’ that is fraught with controversy and one of the most complex and challenging to make.

In 2011 Brisbane experienced severe floods. In response, authorities opened the gates of the nearby Wivenhoe Dam, a decision which was criticised for leading to further inundation. The State Government set up a commission of enquiry to look at the timing of the opening of the dam gates. The enquiry’s report delivered a series of recommendations for improvements to dam management. 

Fast forward a decade, and more flooding rain has inundated the East coast of Australia. Yet again, dam opening policy has been closely scrutinised.

For instance, in February this year, with heavy rain soaking South-East Queensland, Wivenhoe Dam started filling up, and engineers began releasing some water from the dam into the Brisbane River. However, the dam authorities faced difficult questions from journalists who asked why they hadn’t opened the gates earlier when heavy rain was forecast. In response, the authorities stood their ground, explaining they had a protocol to follow based on actual events that would dictate when gates should be opened. They also reminded the public that once the dam gates opened, that water would be lost forever. 

In hindsight, the dam engineers’ response appears to have been correct. They used a pre-determined and agreed approach to an emergency, which released the pressure on the dams as needed whilst limiting the risk to life and property. 

When the dam authorities in Brisbane stood their ground, it was a classic example of the importance of putting process before content. They were under pressure to ignore their well-developed protocol. Opening the gates ahead of time might have seemed an obvious solution to some, but it would have been an emotional response to the situation, leading to a less than optimal outcome.

Putting process before content in decision making is important because it allows all parties to have a common ground of understanding when conversations get difficult. If there is no common ground starting point, then every solution from every corner may have merit, which can also mean no solution has merit. 

The reality of dams is they all have a maximum capacity, and when they fill up, there is often no perfect solution. However, there are more preferable outcomes and these best result from an effective decision-making framework where the parameters of disaster management are agreed upon before an emergency arrives.