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National award for applying historical lens to flooding catastrophes

5 Jul 2022

University of the Sunshine Coast flood historian Dr Margaret Cook has won an inaugural award for her “fearless” critique of the continuing damage done by prioritising development over river health and human safety.

Dr Cook, who specialises in the history of ‘natural’ disasters in Australia especially floods, is the joint winner of the Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand Environmental History Network’s inaugural Public Environmental History Prize.

Describing her work as “fearless and innovative”, judges praised Dr Cook for identifying the emotional dimensions of river and flood management, both in long-term personal impacts of flooding disasters, their clean up stages and commitment to searching for technological solutions.

“A key focus of my cross-disciplinary research and public engagement argues that ‘flooding’ in built environments is no ‘natural’ disaster but is generated by urban planning and political calculations, now exacerbated by human-induced climate change,” said Dr Cook, who lectures in history at UniSC.

Dr Cook’s research on the complex Brisbane River system, outlined in her book, A River with a City Problem, draws on scientific, policy and media archives and community memory, including consultation with Indigenous community members.

The judges said Dr Cook’s research and advocacy had influenced policy making in Queensland and nationally, in addition to her continuing reach into public audiences through media appearances, journals and articles.

Examples includes her role as the only humanities scholar among 600 disaster experts in the Flood Community of Practice, a collaboration of professionals exchanging global knowledge and experiences that can reduce flood and drought impacts.

In 2021, Dr Cook also assisted the inaugural Queensland Disaster Management Research Forum, at the invitation of the Queensland Inspector-General of Emergency Management.

She is co-editor of Disasters in Australia and New Zealand: Historical approaches to understanding catastrophe, a collection of essays on bushfire, flood, cyclones, and earthquakes (Palgrave, 2020).

Her co-authored book, Cities in a Sunburnt Country, written as part of an Australia Research Council Discovery Project, Water and the making of urban Australia since 1900, was published in June 2022 by Cambridge University Press and examines how Australia’s five largest capital cities have dealt with providing sewerage and potable water in the world’s driest inhabited continent.

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