Bushfires threaten drinking water safety. The consequences could last for decades



Warnings about poor drinking water quality are in place in some areas affected by the bushfires.
From shutterstock.com

Stuart Khan, UNSW

Bushfires pose serious short- and long-term impacts to public drinking water quality. They can damage water supply infrastructure and water catchments, impeding the treatment processes that normally make our water safe to drink.

Several areas in New South Wales and Victoria have already been issued with warnings about the quality of their drinking water.

Here’s what we know about the short- and long-term risks.




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Short-term risks

Bushfires can damage or disrupt water supply infrastructure as they burn. And the risks can persist after the fires are out.

A loss of power, for example, disables important water treatment processes such as chlorine disinfection, needed to kill microorganisms and make our water safe to drink.

Drinking water for the towns of Eden and Boydtown on the NSW south coast has been affected in this way over recent days. Residents have been advised to boil their water before drinking it and using it for cooking, teeth brushing, and so on.

Other towns including Cobargo and Bermagui received similar warnings on New Year’s Eve.




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In some cases, untreated water, straight from a river supply, may be fed directly into drinking water systems. Water treatment plants are bypassed completely, due to damage, power loss, or an inability to keep pace with high volumes of water required for firefighting.

We’ve seen this in a number of southern NSW towns this week including Batlow, Adelong, Tumbarumba, and the southern region of Eurobodalla Council, stretching from Moruya to Tilba. Residents of these areas have also been urged to boil their drinking water.

Untreated river water, or river water which has not been properly disinfected with chlorine, is usually not safe for drinking in Australia. Various types of bacteria, as well as the parasites giardia and cryptosporidium, could be in such water.

Animals including cattle, birds and kangaroos can excrete these microorganisms into river water. Septic tanks and sewage treatment plants may also discharge effluents into waterways, adding harmful microorganisms.

Human infection with these microorganisms can cause a range of illnesses, including gastrointestinal diseases with symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting.




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Long-term risks

Bushfires can damage drinking water catchments, which can lead to longer term threats to drinking water. Drinking water catchments are typically forested areas, and so are vulnerable to bushfire damage.

Severe impacts to waterways may not occur until after intense rainfall. Heavy rain can wash ash and eroded soil from the fires into waterways, affecting drinking water supplies downstream.

For example, bushfire ash contains nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Increased nutrient concentrations can stimulate the growth of cyanobacteria, commonly known as “blue-green algae”.

Cyanobacteria produce chemicals which may cause a range of water quality problems, including poor taste and odour. Some cyanobacteria can produce toxic chemicals, requiring very careful management to protect treated drinking water.

Boiling water will kill microorganisms, but not chemical substances.
From shutterstock.com

Many water treatment plants include filtration processes to filter small suspended particles from the water. But an increase in suspended particles, like that which we see after bushfires, would challenge most filtration plants. The suspended particles would be removed, but they would clog the filters, requiring them to be more frequently pulled from normal operation and cleaned.

This cleaning, or backwashing, is a normal part of the treatment process. But if more time must be spent backwashing, that’s less time the filters are working to produce drinking water. And if the rate of drinking water filtration is slowed and fails to keep pace with demand, authorities may place limitations on water use.




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Boiling water isn’t always enough

In order to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal and other illnesses, water suppliers and health departments may issue a boil water alert, as we’ve seen in the past week. Bringing water to a “rolling boil” can reliably kill most of the microorganisms of concern.

In cases where water may be contaminated with chemical substances rather than microorganisms, boiling is usually not effective. So where there’s a risk of chemical contamination, public health messages are usually “do not drink tap water”. This means bottled water only.

Such “do not drink” alerts were issued this week following bushfire impacts to water treatment plants supplying the Victorian towns of Buchan and Omeo.




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Impacts to catchments from bushfires and subsequent erosion can have long-lasting effects, potentially worsening untreated drinking water quality for many years, even decades.

Following these bushfires, many water treatment plant operators and catchment managers will need to adapt to changed conditions and brace for more extreme weather events in the future.The Conversation

Stuart Khan, Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s no evidence ‘greenies’ block bushfire hazard reduction but here’s a controlled burn idea worth trying



Locally managed hazard reduction could give communities greater ownership over prevention and leverage local knowledge.
David Bowman, Author provided

Jason Alexandra, RMIT University and David Bowman, University of Tasmania

The current bushfire crisis provides compelling evidence of the dangers posed by extremely dry landscapes and hot, windy conditions.

While there’s no evidence “greenies” precipitated the current crisis by blocking hazard reduction, it is clear that we need to explore new ways to manage fuel loads to reduce the severity of bushfires.

It is worth considering how local, self organised, place-based, community groups could be supported to conduct various types of strategic hazard reduction, including targeted grazing and prescribed or fuel reduction burning.

Using the Landcare model for bushfire hazard reduction

One model we could look to is Landcare, which has enjoyed 30 years of bipartisan support. Funded and supported by governments, local, semi-autonomous, self-directed groups aim to take a sustainable approach to land management through on-ground projects such as habitat restoration and improving biodiversity.

This model could be applied to prescribed or fuel reduction burning, carried out by local “GreenFire” groups. This would involve:

1. Developing and resourcing GreenFire groups.

These would be the equivalent of district Landcare groups, but focused on hazard reduction and fuel management. These groups could be encouraged to learn patch-burning techniques, and other landscape scale management practices, such as creating green firebreaks of non-flammable species.

If well coordinated, these techniques would reduce fire hazards across private and public lands. These groups could be an extension of existing Landcare groups combined with volunteer firefighting services. They would aim to increase capacity for fuel management at the landscape scale and provide opportunities for more people to learn skills and share knowledge, with and from professionals working in government forest and national parks agencies.

These kinds of activities, mostly in the cooler, green seasons would enhance the capacity of communities to prepare for future fires, and increase the capacity of traditional fire fighting to suppress dangerous fires.

2. These groups could work under the mentorship and authorisation of fuel management/reduction officers.

These could be public officers such as district fire officers or senior staff of public land management agencies who have had a long involvement in prescribed burning and fuel management on public lands.

3. In each district, fuel reduction periods could be officially declared.
With this declaration state governments would assume liability for fuel reduction fires, so long as they had the appropriate planning, approvals and resourcing (for example, they were undertaken by trained groups and certified by appropriate officials).

4. Fuel reduction burning should employ Indigenous fire rangers, drawing on Indigenous knowledge and celebrating Indigenous patchwork burning practices.

Involving Indigenous communities in such a program would combine traditional and modern burning practices. Blending cultural and modern burning techniques has proven successful in major savanna burning programs reducing carbon emissions from late season fires in Northern Australia.

Prevention is better than firefighting

Land use planning and management play key roles in shaping exposure to bushfire risks, and are therefore central to disaster mitigation.

Under conditions that favour wildfires, no amount of firefighting effort can protect all lives and property. Victoria’s Black Saturday Royal Commission – a comprehensive inquiry into the fires in which 173 people died, more than 5000 were injured and more than 2,000 houses destroyed – found that under extreme conditions, wildfires overwhelm the capacity of emergency services.

South-eastern Australia has long experience of intense fires, yet our population has spread into the bushlands of coastal hinterlands and urban fringes. This has occurred despite scientists warning for more than 30 years that wildfire risks were intensifying due to climate change.

There are no silver bullet fixes to reduce bushfires hazards. But pragmatic approaches based on extensive research have improved disaster responses, supported calls for stricter planning and building codes and quantified the benefits of strategically reducing fuel loads.

We must try creative new ways to reduce risk

Since the Stretton Royal Commission into the 1939 Black Friday bushfires, more than 16 major inquiries have called for greater use of integrated approaches to land use planning and management to minimise disaster risks.

With climate change increasing bushfire impacts and intensities, we need to build capacity in local communities to manage fire hazard. This requires education, training and adapting policies and landscape management practices to devise plans that suit local conditions.

Countless generations of Indigenous people have effectively managed fire risk through skillful burning. It is time to learn how to burn well and to share the techniques and methods that can enable us live well in our flammable landscape.The Conversation

Jason Alexandra, PhD candidate, RMIT University and David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Listen to your people Scott Morrison: the bushfires demand a climate policy reboot



Scott Morrison’s response to the bushfires has been roundly criticised as being too slow and out of touch.
James Ross/AAP

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Frank Jotzo, the director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy at Australian National University, has some constructive advice for Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a column today for the ABC: do not waste an opportunity to recalibrate his government’s approach on climate change.

Morrison should heed Jotzo’s suggestion that he and his cabinet need to “drop the old anti-climate change stance”. As Jotzo writes,

You’ve been politically locked into a no-action position, but the bushfires give you the reason to change […] You can make it your mission to protect the country from harm, an essential conservative cause.

Jotzo speaks with authority as one of the country’s foremost experts on climate reduction policies. He has a global reputation.




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Whether Morrison is capable of a course correction on climate change and, in the process, yield on an issue he has used to wedge his political opponents remains to be seen. However, he would be unwise to pretend that once the immediate bushfire danger passes and the smoke clears, the country will return to normal politically.

The nation will expect – indeed it will demand – that any government, conservative or Labor, face up to what is the new normal of a drying continent rendering human settlement increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather. Failure to do so will exact a heavy political price.

Scott Morrison’s holiday trip to Hawaii immediately came under fire from those who accused him of being out of touch with fire victims.
Steven Saphore/AAP

Morrison’s fallback positions are less defensible

The prime minister insists he has not denied there is a link between climate change and bushfires, but at best his responses on the subject have been evasive and self-serving politically.

Pressed on the issue, his fallback position is to say

I am sure you would also agree that no response by any one government anywhere in the world can be linked to one fire event.

That might be true, but it is hardly the point in the wider scheme of what measures might be adopted to address problems of a sluggish response to the bushfire emergency.

Morrison and others in his government might also go easy on claims that local opposition to hazard reduction burning in native forests contributed to the fires. This is a coded attacked on the Greens and is not supported by the evidence.

When in doubt, politically you might say, blame the Greens.




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Memo to Scott Morrison: people are fed up with politics proving to be a constraint on the development of a credible and sustainable climate policy that involves reasonable transitional steps to a low-carbon economy over time.

As such, he might also drop his claim that calls to reduce carbon emissions are “reckless”.

Where the prime minister is particularly vulnerable – this will be subject studied closely by any future commission of inquiry – lies in his refusal to meet a group of former emergency services leaders calling itself Emergency Leaders for Climate Change.

In April, the leader of the group, Greg Mullins, a former commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue, wrote to Morrison warning him of the threat of “increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events”.

In September, this expert group wrote again to the prime minister asking for a meeting.

They received no constructive response.

Likewise, academic warnings about risks of climate-induced extreme weather events have been ignored.

In a March 2019 report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ANU professor Robert Glasser called specifically for a national strategy to deal with climate disaster preparedness.

More than 500 Australians, about the same number who died in the Vietnam War, die each year from heat stress alone. The annual economic costs of natural disasters are projected to increase to A$39 billion by 2050, which is roughly equivalent to what the Australian government spends annually on defence.

Bear in mind Glasser’s report was written before these Christmas-New Year bushfire disasters.

We need to begin preparing now for this changing climate, by developing a national strategy that outlines exactly how we move on from business as usual and adopt a more responsible approach to climate disaster preparedness.

Demonstrating empathy, not political calculations

This bring us to issues surrounding the PM’s own leadership during the crisis.

Rosemary Williamson of the University of New England concluded a useful survey of Australian prime ministers’ responses to natural disasters last year with these words:

Australians will expect prime ministers to come and see for themselves, to demonstrate empathy and to instil confidence in recovery.

If these are the benchmarks for prime ministerial behaviour during a crisis brought on by disaster whether it is flood, fire or cyclone, Morrison has not lived up to these expectations.

First, he was – inexplicably – out of the country on holiday while uncontrollable fires began ravaging his home state of New South Wales.

Second, he has had trouble demonstrating reasonable empathy for victims of the fires.

And third, he has had difficulty accepting the Commonwealth had a shared responsibility for assisting the states in coping with the fallout from arguably the worst natural disaster in Australian history.

What has been most surprising is the time it has taken for Canberra to understand that such are the dimensions of this disaster that military assistance was necessary.

Weeks passed without the Australian Defence Force (ADF) being called out. The explanation for this delay is that states had not asked for military involvement, as if the out-of-control bushfires themselves respected state boundaries – or Commonwealth-state relations.

Coordination between Canberra and the states has improved in recent days, but in the early stages such cooperation left much to be desired.

In all of this, it is clear Morrison has laboured under a constraint of not wanting to antagonise the climate-sceptic right of his party by immediately conceding that global warming and bushfires are linked.

This would explain his tardiness in acknowledging the extent of the disaster.

Politically, he may well believe that climate remains an important point of difference between parties of left and right.




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Debate over climate – whether it is changing, and if so what to do about it – has become a culture wars issue over the years to the point where it has proved to be a useful political device for parties of the right.

As a politician of the right, Morrison would be reluctant to yield ground on issues to do with electricity prices that might benefit him politically in the future.

These are the political considerations that would be weighing in his calculations.

Morrison tours a scorched farm in Victoria last week.
James Ross/AAP

Charting a new course

However, the ground is shifting politically.

Polls indicate the environment is assuming greater importance among Australians. It is not far behind the economy and health in people’s concerns, according to an exhaustive poll conducted by the ANU’s 2019 Australian Election Study.

Among issues that will burden governments – both federal and state – over the next months will be the heavy costs associated with cleaning up the mess. All up, costs will run into the billions given the dimensions of destruction.

Inevitably, the bushfires will have an impact on economic activity in the December and March quarters. Growth is anaemic in any case, and may well become weaker as a consequence of reduced economic activity during the bushfire season.

Whatever economic fallout ensues, the political costs for the prime minister will continue to weigh heavily.

He would do himself a favour by advancing a credible climate and land management policy that ensures the country is better prepared when the next disaster strikes, as it surely will.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.