In reaction to disastrous floods along Australia’s east coast, the country declared a national emergency on Wednesday and designated disaster zones in communities swept away by surging rivers.
“These natural disasters are making Australia a more difficult place to live in,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday after touring the worst-affected Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.
The emergency declaration, which was established following Australia’s devastating 2019 bushfires, will help eliminate red tape and speed up aid amid criticism of the government’s tardy reaction to the floods, which have claimed the lives of at least 21 people.
Residents in the Northern Rivers have faulted officials for the delayed pace and size of relief operations after being without electricity and internet for several days.
Morrison, who is lagging in polls ahead of a federal election in May, said he kept the media out of his talks with flood victims to safeguard their privacy.
Some people gathered in front of an emergency operations centre Morrison visited, chanting “the water is rising, no more compromising” and “fossil fuel floods,” according to television footage.
Morrison’s conservative government set a goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 by the end of last year, but climate activists are calling for more aggressive action.
Morrison told reporters that the devastation was caused by climate change, which he said had also caused previous bushfire disasters, but that the greater problem was decreasing other countries’ emissions.
Flood mitigation projects, rather than stronger emissions reductions in Australia, will save people, he claims.
Military forces deployed to the region to assist with cleanup activities will be more than doubled to 4,000, according to officials.
In the last week, the government has handed out A$385 million to flood victims around Australia, and Morrison announced that help would be expanded in Lismore and adjacent communities to give food and shelter, mental health support, and legal and business assistance.