Berejiklian and Morrison's eerie silence on bushfires and Sydney water quality fears

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

With bushfires now encroaching on Sydney and surrounds, experts have now expressed concerns for the city’s water quality. 

According to Professor Stuart Khan from the University of New South Wales, “key risk” is the production of large quantities of ash-rich in organic carbon and phosphorous that can lead to serious water quality impacts, particularly following rain.

We have as yet heard nothing on this matter from NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, despite the growing public concern, being expressed on social media.

Given that both Ms Berejiklian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison disregarded warnings from experts on the catastrophic fire season we are facing – and took no steps to prepare for or limit the fires’ ravages – we can be forgiven for declining to trust that Ms Berejiklian will take the steps necessary to protect the water quality of both city and bush catchments affected by fires.

Air-borne ash has already contaminated the water supply in Tenterfield, northern NSW, where fires have been burning for two months. Residents are advised to boil drinking water. The contamination was considerably worsened by rain. With more than two million hectares already burned in NSW, experts advise that authorities might have to deal with similar problems on a massive scale — including in the Sydney catchment.

The Premier, like her colleague the Prime Minister, has kept a low profile over the last few weeks. It has been some considerable time since either party visited a bushfire site — remarkable when you consider that politicians usually flock to the site of disasters for the photo opportunities they offer.

In response to what he described as Sydney’s “haze”, Morrison agreed that some people might find the thick smog a little troubling and advised them to download an app for information about the fires. Ms Berejikilian advised residents to be “vigilant” and went off to open a zoo. This engagement did appear rather ironic, given our native animals are falling, burnt to a crisp, out of their trees.

Water quality is not my area of expertise. Given that along with thousands of other people, I’m currently in the middle of a fire-ground – in my case one that has been burning for three months and in the last ten days alone has veered from watch and act to emergency to catastrophic, to advice and back again – I really don’t want to spend any time chasing down information on the quality of our water. It’s bad enough struggling with the quality of our air.

It seems to me that it is beholden on the Berejiklian Government to inform NSW residents of the current state of our water. Further, it is absolutely the Government’s task to advise us on what measures are being put in place to monitor and control our water quality in the foreseeable future. There are things that need to be done before any rains hit, to attempt to minimise contamination. Are these things being done? Are there any plans for these things to be done?

It would be reassuring to know that the NSW Government does not intend to leave us at the mercy of nature, as it did with its disregard for the savagery of the current fires, despite being warned. It would be reassuring to know that Berejiklian has not withdrawn any relevant funding to those who guard our water supply, as she did to fire services and National Parks and Wildlife. Having overseen the fiery destruction of two million hectares, with who knows how much more is yet to come, it would be reassuring to know that the Government has safeguards in place to protect our water.

It appears to this writer that politicians in the major parties have been ordered to keep a low profile about the current fires — by whom is open to speculation. This lack of leadership has also been noted by some in the mainstream media. The current catastrophic bushfire situation, with no end in sight, offers a brilliant opportunity for political leaders to take charge and shine. Sadly, we do not appear to have any political leaders with the vision and mettle to take on this challenge.

One could almost believe the current leadership is so beholden to the fossil fuel industry their brief is to minimise the fires and when possible, act as if they aren’t really happening. After all, it is impossible to contemplate this season’s burnings without including climate change in one’s meditations and we all know where many politicians, from both major parties, stand in relation to the coal industry and climate change.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is a psychotherapist, academic and scholar. You can follow Jennifer on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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