NRCF CEO Sam Henderson shares his reflections:
Twelve months on from the flooding events of 2022, as Northern Rivers locals, we are acutely aware the recovery journey is different for every individual and community. Certainly it is not a simple, linear process.
Recently the NRCF hosted CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, David Ritter, to “bear witness to the personal, local impacts of climate change”.
David and I visited and met with many of our community members, including recipient organisations of the NRCF’s Emergency Response Grants distributed directly after the floods, as well as individuals who kindly welcomed us into their home to share their story with NRCF and Greenpeace Australia.
We sat around kitchen tables, met with locals who have been operating community-driven recovery hubs and walked through gutted homes and valleys with entire hillsides still devastated from landslides.
We shared memories, tears, a few laughs, and hopes for the future with the people we spoke with. It was a confronting, heart-warming and sobering witnessing tour.
NRCF’s core role is supporting local grassroots and community organisations. It is these groups who make up the social fabric of our region – and who were essential to the response and recovery efforts. Their voices are essential to a genuine, community-led recovery.
This of course plays into the global conversation of natural disasters and climate change that is happening. But more so, it puts a spotlight on the personal stories of those who are affected, on all levels – village, town, community, individual, family and business.
Without a doubt, over three days meeting with residents from Chinderah, Tumbulgum, Murwillumbah, Mullumbimby, Main Arm, Lismore, Ballina, Woodburn and Wardell, one repeating message was clear: Our communities are moving through the recovery process with the help of each other, but there is still so much further to go. Our communities are the ones who know what they need. It is their voice which should be given the most weight.
As David and I stood with Richard Hughes from Main Arm Disaster Recovery, I was struck by his knowledge of the land he stewards and his observations of how land clearing and degradation had quickened the flood waters through the hills and valleys he calls home.
From a high vantage point it’s easy to see where the water travelled down the river systems, where the hills slid and where deforestation has removed natural flow-control for that water. Deforestation has also ensured the holding mechanism that trees play for the soil, riverbank and hillside integrity was weakened substantially.
‘Single benefit solutions’ such as engineering (for example dam walls) are only part of the story. Looking to the future, Landcare networks talk with hope about the myriad benefits of nature-based solutions to reduce the impacts of disasters – targeted tree plantings slow down and help lessen impact downstream; but they also hold riverbanks together, reduce sediment in flood waters (and thus flood heights), at the same time as sequestering carbon, increasing biodiversity and habitat, and improving overall water quality and river health.
Throughout our visit we saw the self-organising and collective spirit our region is famous for. Pooling resources, chipping in, creating hope in the midst of despair. This has now been done for over a year through the grit and human effort of the people who make up our communities.
The community hubs of Wardell CORE, Winsome Hotel in Lismore, Hub 2484 in Murwillumbah as well as Mid Richmond Neighbourhood Centre and Mullumbimby & District Neighbourhood Centre all hosted us.
What was apparent was the way people had become essential supports for each other. They had a shared experience that created a collective empathy and resilience. That was scaffolded in the hubs in particular with wellbeing or mental health groups, who could help groups as a collective to process and start moving through their trauma and recovery journey.
As Mika from the Winsome in Lismore put it, “these are our people and our friends”.
“We couldn’t have survived without the community, our neighbours, other groups”.
While the strength of the Northern Rivers’ generous community spirit shone through, there remains a great amount of uncertainty and suffering across our Northern Rivers communities. Seeing the state of homes and infrastructure, the strain of services and the ongoing population of displaced community members is heartbreaking.
International research has shown that post-disaster, a ‘funding cliff’ appears in the 12-to-24-month period following a disaster, and NRCF is observing this for the groups we support. As the emergency and responsive funding comes to an end, we are sharply aware of what this means for our communities and the community organisations working to support them (many of whose staff are also personally impacted).
For those in our philanthropy community who can support the ongoing recovery efforts, our Recovery and Resilience Fund is open and we would love your support.
We are negotiating with our partners to allow for matched funding – where every donor dollar will be matched to double the community-led recovery efforts in the Northern Rivers.
To bring our vibrancy back.
To keep our locals supported and living here in our towns and villages.
Thank you to everyone involved in facilitating the Greenpeace Australia witnessing tour. I firmly believe CEO David Ritter has left with a rich narrative of the personal and local impacts of global climate change.