Victoria’s wild storms show how easily disasters can threaten our water supply


Ian Wright, Western Sydney UniversityThe wild storms that recently raged across eastern Victoria caused major property and environmental damage, and loss of lives. They’ve also triggered serious water contamination incidents.

Yarra Valley Water issued an urgent health warning to not to drink tap water — not even if it’s boiled — in three affected suburbs: Kalista, Sherbrooke and The Patch.

So what caused this incident? Yarra Valley Water says the severe weather led to an equipment failure, with potentially unsafe water entering the drinking water system.

I spoke to the water authority about the nature of the contamination, and they did not provide any more detail. But based on my three decades of experience in the water industry, I can offer some insight into how disasters create contamination crises, and Australia’s vulnerabilities.

Does boiling water help?

Despite recent health warnings, it’s worth pointing out that Australia’s water supply is generally safe and reliable, with few exceptions. Still, this is hardly the first time disasters have disrupted water supply, whether from droughts, storms and floods, or bushfires.

For example, the Black Summer bushfires damaged water supply infrastructure for many communities, such as in Eden and Boydtown on the south coast of New South Wales. The Bega Valley Shire Council issued a boil water notice, as the loss of electricity stopped chlorinating the water supply, which is needed to maintain safe disinfection levels.

Boil water alerts indicate harmful pathogens may be present in the water, and you should boil water for at least one minute to kill them.




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Better boil ya billy: when Australian water goes bad


In inland and remote communities, drinking water contamination can be more common and very difficult to resolve.

For example, many remote Western Australian towns have chronic water quality problems, with drinking water often failing to meet Australian standards. And in 2015, the WA Auditor General reported the water in many Indigenous communities contains harmful contaminants, such as uranium and nitrates.

The source of this contamination is often naturally occurring chemical compounds in the local geology of ground water supplies.

One of the biggest contamination incidents in Australia occurred in August and September in 1998. A series of extreme wet weather events after a long drought triggered the contamination of Sydney’s drinking water with high levels of protozoan parasites, which can cause serious diseases such as gastroenteritis or cryptosporidiosis. It resulted in boil water alerts across much of the Sydney metropolitan area.

But what makes this latest incident in Victoria so concerning is that authorities have warned even boiling will not reduce contamination. This suggests contamination may be due to the presence of a harmful chemical, or high levels of sediment particles.

Sediment in water — measured as “turbidity” — can be hazardous because these particles can hold other contaminants, or even shield pathogens from disinfection.

Yarra Valley Water’s advice for the affected suburbs is to avoid using water in any cooking, making ice, brushing teeth or mixing baby formula, and for people to take care not to ingest water in the shower or bath. Emergency drinking water is being supplied by Yarra Valley Water in some locations.

So why do disasters threaten our drinking water?

This latest incident is another reminder that our drinking water is vulnerable to disruption from extreme weather.

This is almost certain to continue, and worsen, as the the Bureau of Meterology’s State of the Climate 2020 report predicts more extreme weather — including drought, heatwaves, bushfires, storms, and floods — in Australia’s future.

As these disasters become more frequent and extreme under climate change, impacts on water supplies across Australia are likely to become more destructive.

A good example of how this can unfold was the impact on Canberra’s water supply after the destructive 2003 bushfires.

Fire burned most of the region’s Cotter River catchments, which hold three dams. After fires went out, massive storms eroded the weakened ground, and washed ash, soil and organic debris into the storage reservoirs. It took years for the water supply system to fully recover.

Physical damage to water infrastructure is also a big risk, as modern water supplies are large and complex. For example, a fallen tree could break open the roof of a sealed water storage tank, exposing water to the elements.

Interruptions of electrical supplies after extreme weather are also common, leading to failures of water supply technology. This, for instance, could stop a water pump from operating, or break down the telemetry system which helps control operations.

As difficult as these hits to Australia’s water security are, and will be in future, it’s even more problematic in the developing world, which may not have the resources to recover.

How can we withstand these challenges?

To maintain optimal water quality, we must protect the integrity of water catchments — areas where water is collected by the natural landscape.

For example, damaging logging operations along steep slopes in Melbourne’s biggest water catchment threatens to pollute the city’s drinking water because it increases the risk of erosion during storms.




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Logging must stop in Melbourne’s biggest water supply catchment


There’s also merit in Australian cities investing in advanced treatment of wastewater for reuse, rather than build infrequently used desalination plants for when there’s drought.

Australia could follow the US state of California which has ambitious targets to reuse more than 60% of its sewage effluent.

And it’s completely safe — Australia has developed guidelines to ensure recycled water is treated and managed to operate reliably and protect public health.




Read more:
Why does some tap water taste weird?


If you’re concerned about water quality from the tap and haven’t received any alerts, you might just not like its taste. If in doubt, contact you local water supplier.


This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay foundation. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

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

Three weeks without electricity? That’s the reality facing thousands of Victorians, and it will happen again


James Ross/AAP

Anthony Richardson, RMIT UniversityLast week’s storm system wreaked havoc across Victoria. Some 220,000 households and businesses lost power, and residents in the hills on Melbourne’s fringe were warned yesterday it might not be restored for three weeks.

The extreme weather severely damaged the poles and powerlines that distribute electricity, particularly in the Mount Dandenong area. Senior AusNet official Steven Neave said of the region this week, “we basically have no network left, the overhead infrastructure is pretty much gone. It requires a complete rebuild”.

That leaves about 3,000 customers without electricity for weeks, in the heart of winter. The loss of power also cut mobile phone and internet services and reportedly allowed untreated water to enter drinking supplies.

So, could this disaster have been avoided? And under climate change, how can we prepare for more events like this?

fallen tree on powerlines
Fallen trees brought down power lines across Melbourne.
Daniel Pockett/AAP

An uncertain future

The Mount Dandenong area is heavily forested, and the chance of above-ground power infrastructure being hit by falling trees is obviously high.

Without electricity, people cannot turn on lights, refrigerate food or medications, cook on electric stoves or use electric heaters. Electronic banking, schooling and business activities are also badly disrupted. For vulnerable residents, in particular, the implications are profound.

Such disruptions are hard to avoid, at least while the electricity network is above ground. Good management, however, can prevent some trees coming down in storms.

The more pertinent question is: how can we prepare for such an event in the future?

Scientists warn such extreme weather will increase in both frequency and severity as climate change accelerates. The Australian Energy Market Operator is acutely aware of this, warning climate change poses “material risks to individual assets, the integrated energy system, and society”.

However, it’s challenging to predict exactly how future heatwaves, storms, bushfires and floods will affect the power network. As AEMO notes, many climate models related to storms and cyclones involve an element of unpredictability. So, plans to make the electricity system more resilient must address this uncertainty.

As researchers have noted, there is no “one future” to prepare for – we must be ready for many potential eventualities.




Read more:
Victoria’s wild storms show how easily disasters can threaten our water supply


tree fallen on house
Under climate change, extreme weather is predicted to become more severe.
Daniel Pockett/AAP

Yallourn – the bigger problem?

Meanwhile, in Victoria’s LaTrobe Valley, a situation at the Yallourn coal-fired power station which may have even greater consequences for electricity supplies.

A coal mine wall adjacent to the station is at risk of collapse after flooding in the Morwell River caused it to crack. If the wall is breached and the mine is flooded, as happened in 2012, there will be no coal to power the station and almost a quarter of Victoria’s power supply could be out for months.

Victoria’s energy needs are increasingly supplied by renewables. However, losing Yallourn’s generation capacity would reduce the capacity of the network to adapt to other possible disruptions.

If further disruptions seem unlikely, it’s worth noting the Callide Power Station in Queensland is still operating at reduced capacity after a recent fire.




Read more:
An act of God, or just bad management? Why trees fall and how to prevent it


power plant with chimneys
A wall adjacent to the Yallourn power plant may collapse.
Julian Smith/AAP

Look beyond the immediate crisis

The Victorian government has offered up to A$1,680 per week, for up to three weeks, to help families without power buy supplies and find alternative accommodation.

Welfare groups say the assistance could be improved. They have called for changes to make it quicker and easier for people to access money, cash injections to frontline charities and more temporary accommodation facilities for displaced people and their pets.

While no doubt needed, these are all reactive responses targeted at those without electricity. When any system is disrupted, however, the effects can be widespread and felt long after the initial problem has been addressed.

Take dairy farmers in Gippsland, for example, who could not milk their cows without electricity. Cows must be milked regularly or else they stop producing milk – they cannot be “switched back on” when electricity is restored. Longer-term assistance may well be required for farmers facing such ripple effects.

And as welfare groups have noted, power companies should support affected customers over the long-term, with electricity discounts, deferrals and payment plans.




Read more:
No food, no fuel, no phones: bushfires showed we’re only ever one step from system collapse


Sign reading 'power and shower'
Relief centres offer affected residents a hot shower and electricity access, but longer-term solutions are also needed.
Daniel Pockett/AAP

A call for backup

So, what else can be done to prepare for future power disruptions? Those with backup options, such as portable fuel-powered generators, or off-grid household batteries connected to solar panels, will undoubtedly be more resilient in such events.

These are examples of “system redundancy”, providing alternative electricity until the network is restored.

But it costs money to invest in household batteries or a generator that may never be used. Resilience is often a function of wealth, and the less well-off risk being left behind.

Certainly, governments can act to make society as a whole more resilient to power outages. For example, mobile phone towers have backup battery life of just 24 hours. As Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said this week, extending that is something authorities “need to look at”.

Power and communications infrastructure could be moved underground to protect it from storms. While such a move would be expensive, it has been argued not doing so will lead to greater long-term costs under a changing climate.

The recent challenges at Yallourn and Callide show the risks inherent in a centralised electricity network dominated by coal.

Certainly, integrating renewable energy sources into the power network comes with its own challenges. However, expanding energy storage such as batteries, or shifting to small, community-level microgrids will go a long way to improving the resilience of the system.

This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation. Find the series here.The Conversation

Anthony Richardson, Researcher and Teacher, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

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

Australia needs construction waste recycling plants — but locals first need to be won over


Shutterstock

Salman Shooshtarian, RMIT University and Tayyab Maqsood, RMIT UniversityStrong community opposition to a proposed waste facility in regional New South Wales made headlines earlier this year. The A$3.9 million facility would occupy 2.7 hectares of Gunnedah’s industrial estate. It’s intended to process up to 250,000 tonnes a year of waste materials from Sydney.

Much of this is construction waste that can be used in road building after processing. Construction of the plant will employ 62 people and its operation will create 30 jobs. Yet every one of the 86 public submissions to the planning review objected to the project.

Residents raised various concerns, which received widespread local media coverage. They were concerned about water management, air quality, noise, the impact of hazardous waste, traffic and transport, fire safety and soil and water. For instance, a submission by a local businessman and veterinary surgeon stated:

“The proposed facility is too close to town, residences and other businesses […] Gunnedah is growing and this proposed development will be uncomfortably close to town in years to come.”

Map showing location of the proposed waste recycling facility in Gunnedah
The location of the proposed waste recycling facility in Gunnedah.
Source: Google Maps (2021), Author provided

The general manager of the applicant said descriptions such as “toxic waste dump” were far from accurate.

“It’s not a dump […] Its prime focus is to reclaim, reuse and recycle.”

He added: “[At present] the majority of this stuff goes to landfill. What we’re proposing is very beneficial to the environment, which is taking these resources and putting them back into recirculation. The reality is the population is growing, more waste is going to get generated and the upside is we’re much better processing and claiming out of it than sending it to landfill.”




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We create 20m tons of construction industry waste each year. Here’s how to stop it going to landfill


Why are these facilities needed?

According to the latest data in the National Waste Report 2020, Australia generated 27 million tonnes of waste (44% of all waste) from the construction and demolition (C&D) sector in 2018-19. That’s a 61% increase since 2006-07. This waste stream is the largest source of managed waste in Australia and 76% of it is recycled.

However, recycling rates and processing capacities still need to increase massively. The environmental impact statement for the Gunnedah project notes Sydney “is already facing pressure” to dispose of its growing construction waste. Most state and national policies – including the NSW Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy 2014-2021, NSW Waste and Resource Recovery Infrastructure Strategy and 2018 National Waste Policy – highlight the need to develop infrastructure to effectively manage this waste.




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The 20th century saw a 23-fold increase in natural resources used for building


Why, then, do people oppose these facilities?

Public opposition to new infrastructure in local neighbourhoods, the Not-in-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) attitude, is a global phenomenon. Australia is no exception. We have seen previous public protests against waste facilities being established in local areas.

The academic literature reports the root causes of this resistance are stench and other air pollution, and concerns about impacts on property values and health. Factors that influence individuals’ perceptions include education level, past experience of stench and proximity to housing.

Protesters march behind a sign reading 'We demand fair development'.
Local communities around the world have protested against local waste management plants that they see as a threat to their health.
United Workers/Flickr, CC BY

What are the other challenges of recycling?

Our research team at RMIT University explore ways to effectively manage construction and demolition waste, with a focus on developing a circular economy. Our research shows this goal depends heavily on the development of end markets for recycled products. Operators then have the confidence to invest in recycling construction and demolition waste, knowing it will produce a reasonable return.




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The planned national waste policy won’t deliver a truly circular economy


A consistent supply of recycled material is needed too. We believe more recycling infrastructure needs to be developed all around Australia. Regional areas are the most suitable for this purpose because they have the space and a need for local job creation.

To achieve nationwide waste recycling, however, everyone must play their part. By everyone, we mean suppliers, waste producers, waste operators, governments and the community.

Today we are facing new challenges such as massive urbanisation, shortage of virgin materials, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and bans on the export of waste. These challenges warrant new solutions, which include sharing responsibility for the waste we all generate.




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What can be done to resolve public concerns?

Government has a key role to play in educating the public about the many benefits of recycling construction and demolition waste. These benefits include environmental protection, more efficient resource use, reduced construction costs, and job creation.

Government must also ensure communities are adequately consulted. A local news report reflected Gunnedah residents’ concern that the recycling facility’s proponent had not contacted them. They initiated the contact. One local said:

“I do understand the short-term financial gains a development like this will bring to the community, but also know the financial and environmental burden they will cause.”

Feedback from residents triggered a series of consultation sessions involving all parties.

A robust framework for consulting the community, engaging stakeholders and providing information should be developed to accompany any such development. Community education programs should be based on research.

For instance, research indicates that, unlike municipal waste recycling facilities, construction and demolition waste management facilities have negligible to manageable impact on the environment and residents’ health and well-being. This is due to the non-combustible nature of most construction materials, such as masonrt.

Such evidence needs to be communicated effectively to change negative community attitudes towards construction and demolition waste recycling facilities. At RMIT, through our National Construction & Demolition Waste Research and Industry Portal, we continue to play our part in increasing public awareness of the benefits.




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The Conversation


Salman Shooshtarian, Research Fellow, RMIT University and Tayyab Maqsood, Associate Dean and Head of of Project Management, RMIT University

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