Social vulnerability in a high-risk flood-affected rural region of NSW, Australia


We describe factors related to the social vulnerability of populations that experienced major river flooding in northern New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Using geographical information system methods, maps of 2017 flood-affected areas in the Lismore and Murwillumbah regions were combined with 2016 National census data to compare aspects of social vulnerability with the wider region and the region with Sydney. We also used individual-level data from the NSW 45 and Up Study to compare lifestyle, behavioural and health characteristics of residents of these flood-affected areas with the broader region (n = 13,561). Populations living in the Lismore Town Centre flood footprint exhibited significantly higher levels of social vulnerability over a range of factors; in particular, almost 82% resided in the most disadvantaged socio-economic quintile neighbourhoods. The flood-affected areas of Murwillumbah and Lismore regions included 47% and 60% of residents in the most disadvantaged quintile neighbourhoods compared to 27% for whole region and 16% for Sydney. This pattern of increased vulnerability was also apparent from the 45 and Up study; participants residing in the Lismore Town Centre flood footprint had significantly higher rates of riskier lifestyle-related behaviours (smoking, alcohol consumption), pre-existing mental health conditions (depression and anxiety) and poorer health. This detailed case study demonstrates extreme local vulnerability of flood-exposed populations, over and above the already highly vulnerable regional rural populations. This information is important to inform disaster planning and response and also reinforces the importance of having a detailed understanding of affected populations.

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The Office of Environment and Heritage for the provision of the 2017 Flood maps in GIS ready format and for detailed advice about their construction based on consultants’ BMT WBM Pty Ltd reports. Post Event Flood Behaviour Analysis and Review of Flood Intelligence—Lismore Final Report Reference: R.B22696.001.02_Lismore.docx (April 2018) and Post Event Flood Behaviour Analysis and Review of Flood Intelligence—Tweed River Draft Final Report (Reference: R.B22696.001.01_Tweed.docx January 2018). Further details of these reports available from the OEH Conservation and Regional Delivery Division, Office of Environment and Heritage, PO Box 856 Alstonville NSW 2477. Lismore City Council for the provision of early 2017 flood maps and the 1974 flood map in GIS ready format and for detailed knowledge on the history of flooding in the town. Tweed Shire Council for Design Flood Maps and for advice on the extent of the 2017 Murwillumbah flood with respect to its extent and comparison to the Design Flood Levels (1 in 100-year flood). This research was completed using data collected through the 45 and Up Study ( The 45 and Up Study is managed by the Sax Institute in collaboration with major partner Cancer Council NSW and partners: the National Heart Foundation of Australia (NSW Division); NSW Ministry of Health; NSW Government Family and Community Services—Ageing, Carers and the Disability Council NSW; and the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. We thank the many thousands of people participating in the 45 and Up Study. The 45 and Up Study was approved by the University of New South Wales Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC). Informed consent was obtained from all survey participants. The 45 and Up Study component of this paper was approved by the NSW Population and Health Services Research Ethics Committee AU RED Reference: HREC/15/CIPHS/4, Cancer Institute NSW reference number: 2015/02/575 for Sub-study 2 [Air Pollution, Traffic Exposures and Mortality and Morbidity in Older Australians (APTEMA) Study], under the overarching project titled ‘Understanding the impact of the social, economic and environmental factors on the health of Australians in mid-later life; where are the opportunities for prevention?’ (NHMRC Grant 402810). Dr Ivan Hanigan for his contribution to the linking of geocoded participant residential address identifiers and the flood footprint maps within the SURE environment of the SAX Institute.


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Correspondence to Margaret I. Rolfe.

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Rolfe, M.I., Pit, S.W., McKenzie, J.W. et al. Social vulnerability in a high-risk flood-affected rural region of NSW, Australia. Nat Hazards 101, 631–650 (2020).

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  • Floods
  • Vulnerable populations
  • Resilience psychological
  • Disasters
  • Socio-economic factors
  • Community