September 29, 2012

Fire and rain

In cool, damp Northwest Europe the only time you see a wildfire is on the television news, and only when it has been particularly bad, such as in Victoria in February 2009, when there was the greatest ever loss of life (173) in an Australian bushfire. Hundreds more were injured.

Here bushfires are so common there's even a season for them – that is, when it gets hot, dry and windy. Many plant species have adapted to them or are even dependent on them, for seed dispersal or stimulating new growth. Indigenous Australians have used fire for thousands of years to clear tracks and extend areas of grassland for hunting purposes. (See also Bushfire Season, September 2011.)

Right now Queensland is on high alert, and has been for a while. There's been very little rain since the middle of July and temperatures have regularly been above average. We've already hit 30C, which we didn't do till December last year. And it's frequently very breezy.

Another problem is that firefighters are not happy bunnies. Firies have joined ambos and thousands of other frontline workers outside Parliament House in Brisbane to protest about Campbell Newman's job cull and proposed cost cutting that will affect working conditions. The State government also managed to upset Rural Fire Service volunteers when a memo proposing to cut paid staff was 'prematurely circulated'. A U-turn, or backflip as they call it here, swiftly followed.

The term bushfire can apply to burning grass, scrub, bush or forest. It's grass fires that are of particular concern at the moment. There's been above average rainfall since we arrived in Australia nearly three years ago (thanks, guys), following years of harsh drought during the Noughties. What this means is that grass growth has been profusive. There are now thousands of hectares of grass 'fuel' out there, as dry as a bone and waving in the wind, just waiting for some idiot with a carelessly tossed butt or bottle. Grass fires burn fast and furious – 20-30km/hour faster than a fire in a forest.

For weeks fire services have been encouraging Queenslanders to prepare their properties in these high-risk times. There are extensive lists of instructions readily available*, based on many years of experience, especially Victoria's Black Saturday in 2009. We weren't in Australia then but I vividly remember hearing descriptions of the noise of the rapidly approaching fire – like a jet engine, victims said. I can barely imagine such a terrifying prospect.

On Thursday morning there was a strong smell of smoke – and a blue haze everywhere. Turns out there were grass fires burning just west of Brisbane, and had been for four days.
And the rain? There have been sprinkles, but nothing like as much as this parched landscape needs. And we're still a couple of months off The Wet. Weather people are telling us that we are headed for an El NiƱo event, which may well mean lower than average rainfall and higher than average temperatures. More bad news for the firies.

September 27, 2012

Coast with the most

As well as the Brisbane Festival and the Brisbane Writers Festival, Coast to Coast 2012 – Living on the Edge came to town last week. This four-day event has been held every two years since 1994 and brings together delegates from science, academia, policy-making, government and management to 'promote best-practice sustainable development and management of the coastal zone through the exchange of ideas, knowledge and experience'. I attended a debate that was open to the public: Coastal Development – Coasting Along or Crisis?

ABC Radio National broadcaster Antony Funnell put big coastal issues before a panel comprising Canadian historian Ronald Wright; policy advisor Professor Bruce Thom of Sydney University, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists*; Professor Hugh Possingham, conservation biologist, public policy advisor and founding member of the Wentworth Group; Mark Gibbs, formerly of CSIRO and now coastal infrastructure and management consultant; and Peta Ashworth, academic and leader of CSIRO's Science into Society Group**.

The debate focused on three main areas: first up was Rules, Rights and Responsibilities. In New South Wales there has been a significant change in coastal zone management, power having been devolved to local councils who are out of their depth – and that's before sea levels rise. They don't have the latest technical information or sufficient funds to project and manage the impact of climate change on their area ('a big call for a small council' – Hugh Possingham). There was more than a suggestion of the abrogation of state responsibility and the downsizing of the state's technical capacity. Prof Possingham stressed the need for big Federal government (a national land-use plan would be a good start) and top-down, longterm coastal management funded by higher taxes.

Coastal Development and the Environment included a discussion of the 'progress trap', in which so-called advances such as the construction of levees or dredging are found to have limitations – as seen in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Development is often in low-lying areas, and when natural disasters occur, flooding distributes industrial chemicals, pesticides and plastic debris throughout the biosphere. There is an argument for a 'managed retreat' of environmental control in coastal regions – allowing erosion, for example – but this isn't always popular among coast dwellers. By the sea wasn't always the place to be, however. In the past, only fishermen and other relevant workers lived there. They tended to have a greater connection with weather and the processes of coastal geomorphology than the millions who now crave the beach life and messing about in boats.

Finally, the panel made suggestions about Preparing for the Future. These included greater funding to make all resources available for all those involved in coastal zone management and to ease the cost of capital infrastructure (it costs 40 per cent more to build a road in Australia than in the United States). Sustainability has to be part of decision-making: there is a better grasp of the risks to canal estates in Tasmania and Victoria than Queensland, for instance. And give local councils a mandate to 'preserve and protect' (Ronald Wright). Norway has a fund for dealing with future environmental crises, which sounds like a good idea for a 'land... of droughts and flooding rains'. Barrages around ports might be one preventative measure: it was pointed out that the idea for a Thames Barrage took 30 years to come to fruition following the east coast floods of the 1950s. The reconstruction of coastal habitats and the management of ecosystems to re-establish and protect vulnerable species is obviously desirable. There has been a serious decline in the numbers of shorebirds and waders migrating along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, and rapid habitat loss is believed to be a major factor.

Panellists were of one voice when it came to the need for 'strategic longsight'. We can't just hope that everything will turn out OK; and we need to harness the fear that it may well not be. Short-term business deals and electoral terms are not conducive to rethinking our obsession with constant economic growth. Big government needs to draw hard lines in the sand if Australia's coastline is to be preserved as the wild and wonderful place it still is in large part.
A report by the Climate Commission this week has predicted that 4000 homes on the Gold Coast and 2000 on the Sunshine Coast might be lost during the next 50-80 years as a result of rising sea levels. Housing developments are still being built in both areas, however. The 2011 flood in Brisbane caused greater damage than the previous inundation in 1974, even though water levels were not as high, because development had proceeded at a pace on the flood plain in the intervening years.

I still remember regions of the Mediterranean coast when they were relatively undeveloped – the most easterly part of Spain's Costa del Sol, for example, and certain Greek islands in the Aegean. Many areas, however, have been been well and truly spoiled since. It's hard not to look at the Gold Coast high-risers or the littering of Fraser Island and conclude that the same thing is happening here.
It would indeed be a tragedy if Australia's magnificent coast was not protected from development today and natural catastrophe tomorrow. The best bits, of course, have the most to lose.
Pictures above: Bay of Fires, Tasmania; east coast towards Freycinet, Tasmania; Bicheno, Tasmania; Rocky Cape, Tasmania; next two, mangroves, Moreton Bay, Queensland; Fraser Island, Queensland; Masked Lapwing; Pied Oystercatcher; Brahminy Kite; juvenile White-bellied Sea-Eagle; next two, Rainbow Beach, Queensland; next two, Torquay, Victoria; next two, Tallow and Belongil beaches, Byron Bay, New South Wales; Cape Tribulation, Northern Queensland

* to see what they are concerned about go to
** see

September 21, 2012

Don't want a mega-mine? Change the law

It felt good last week when many people in Australia let it be known to the powers that be that they did not want super trawlers lurking off the south coast of their continent hoovering up tonnes of fish like never before. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, even though he had previously claimed that his hands were tied, changed the law so that it could not come to pass.

It was relatively easy really, wasn't it Tony? The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill 2012 was passed in both houses, despite the Noalition*, and... Ay, caramba! The vessel formerly known as Margiris** is stuck in Port Lincoln in South Australia, and isn't going fishing in Australian waters for at least two years, until research has assessed its impact on fish stocks.

According to Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe of the School of Science at Griffith University here in Queensland and President of the Australian Conservation Council, despite four national state-of-the-environment reports having documented 'the steady and systematic worsening of all the major environmental indicators, including the loss of our unique biological diversity', the Queensland government's environmental policy has taken an enormous leap backwards in its 'old-fashioned determination not to let environmental concerns get in the way of expanding the mining industry and the coal industry in particular'†.

Campbell Newman's government has so far scrapped funding to the Environmental Defenders Office; cut the feed-in tariff to householders using solar energy; introduced the Environmental Protection (Greentape Reduction) and Other Legislation Amendments Bill; and removed the waste levy so that waste from New South Wales and even Victoria is now being dumped in Queensland††. Next in the government's sights is the revocation of Wild Rivers protections in Cape York on the pretext of aiding Aboriginal economic progress.

Environmental law tweaking is nothing new. In 2006, the government of the Northern Territory changed the law to allow the diversion of the McArthur River and hence the contentious development of a lead and zinc mine. This sorry tale is described in Mine-Field: the Dark Side of Australia's Resources Rush by Paul Cleary, who has reported on economics and politics in the Canberra press gallery for a decade and is a researcher in public policy at the Australian National University. He outlines many examples in recent history of people with ostensibly environmentally-correct credentials jumping into the royalty-jangling pockets of resource developers. Within two months of coming into office in 2010 Tony Burke
'granted 50-year licences to two enormous CSG projects that involve $35 billion of investment, almost 10,000 production wells and just as many thousands of kilometres of pipelines and roads, all linked to two new gas processing plants built within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. A few months later, Burke approved a third project equal in size to the first two combined. Burke's department... advised him that after approving the first two projects he just couldn't say no to the third, ignoring the cumulative impact.'
Cleary claims that the cumulative impact report required by one of these projects, the Gladstone LNG, as a condition of its approval, has still not been provided.

There are, of course, many examples of an environment minister blocking approval of a potentially damaging project. Those of us who fear for Queensland's, and indeed Australia's, landscape cling to the hope that any one, or several, of the following will happen: that politicians have the courage to change more laws, such as those that inadequately protect nature refuges and state forests from mining; that China's faltering economy together with falling commodity prices worldwide will force a rethink among those planning to develop resources in the state's central basins; that Labor somehow win the next Federal election and can therefore continue Australia's first faltering steps towards reducing the country's massive carbon emissions; and that everyone will grasp the imperative to change the global economic system with its continuous-growth fixation.

In the meantime, we don't want super trawlers and we don't need any more of these^ than we've got already.
Oresome Resources

* The name affectionately given by people like me to Tony Abbott's constantly naysaying Federal Opposition (the LNP is a coalition of the Liberal and National parties)
** The vessel has been reflagged (its home port is now Brisbane!) and renamed Abel Tasman. The ship is Dutch-owned and was brought here at the behest of Seafish Tasmania
^ a 300-tonne coal haul truck

September 16, 2012

Airport security nonsense

A former head of Transportation Security Administration in the States, Kip Hawley, thinks we should radically rethink the farce we endure when departing from any airport terminal, domestic or international, post 9/11. He's talking about the US, but it could be anywhere.
'More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. Preventing terrorist attacks on air travel demands flexibility and the constant reassessment of threats. It also demands strong public support, which the current system has plainly failed to achieve.'
In June, my friend inadvertently carried a penknife on to a flight from Brisbane to Melbourne. The scanners on the outbound journey didn't spot it, but it was confiscated on our return – we weren't putting luggage in the hold. The knife was similar to the one above, which is its replacement. I concluded then that the standard of security at Australia's domestic terminals is, at best, inconsistent.

I have long railed against the tedious-beyond-belief experience at British airports. Placing the contents of your cosmetic bag – even though each item is less than 100 ml – in the clear plastic bag. You're supposed to arrange them neatly, even though the sides of the bag offer no support to the contents. And if, in your rush to get the bag sorted properly while taking off your shoes, belt and jacket – oh, and taking your computer out of its protective soft case – you forget to discard the half-empty drinks bottle in your handbag, you get hauled over by a miserable-looking power-crazed 'official' who subjects you to delay and humiliation – because, after all, you look like really dodge, potential terrorist material, don't you, clutching your water?

Returning from Melbourne a couple of days ago, again with only hand luggage, my bag was removed from the belt and I was asked if I was carrying an aerosol. I wasn't. I was directed to a side table and instructed to 'find' the aerosol in my bag. But I didn't have one. I looked over my shoulder towards the security staff for some help in identifying the offending item. None was forthcoming. After standing there helplessly for a few minutes I returned to the fray, washbag in hand. Please could they tell me what the problem was. Eventually one of them took out several items and placed them in a tray. The man in charge of scanning picked out two (above). 'That's not an aerosol,' I said as each item was held up questioningly. He gave them back to me without more ado.

I noticed the same aerosol querying of several people behind me in the queue, which had lengthened considerably. I later learned that security staff are not allowed to look in your bag (so they won't be accused of having planted something), but if the scanner suspects an item, how are you to know which it is unless they help you identify it?

I don't think we'll even visit the subject of biosecurity – and all those banana and beagle botherers as you try to enter Queensland.

Kip Hawley talks* about managing risk rather than enforcing regulations: of foiling a massive plot to disrupt the transportation network rather than ensuring the safety of individual passengers. Future terrorists are unlikely to repeat the shoe-bomb formula: they adapt and find loopholes. The list of banned items – from umbrellas to snow domes to bright pink Tweezermans – tells them what to expect at airports and therefore facilitates the avoidance of detection. Randomization may be the key: pat-downs, interviews, swab tests, thorough bag searches; who knows what passengers would encounter?

Governments and airport authorities have to be seen to be doing something about thwarting terrorist attack from the sky. But the public are long past subdued tolerance, no matter what. How could outdated preventative measures possibly outwit today's al Qaeda agents? Randomization would at least add variety to the security ordeal and get most of us airside faster and with less risk of grumpiness.


September 10, 2012

Big River

The Brisbane River runs large in our lives, and not just because we live beside it. The river's appearance changes according to weather and time of day; it boasts a variety of wildlife, especially birds; it is a working river, busy day and night; it gives the city its name and focus; and, of course, it was the principal player in the great flood of 2011.

It flows 344 kilometres into Moreton Bay from headwaters on Mt Stanley in the Brisbane Range about 25 km northeast of Nanango in the South Burnett region. The Brisbane drains a catchment area of 13,500 square kilometres and has numerous tributaries, including the Stanley, Cooyar, Lockyer and Bremer, and urban creeks such as the Enoggera, Oxley, Bulimba and Norman. It was first explored by John Oxley, New South Wales Surveyor-General, in 1823. He was looking for a suitable site for a remote penal station and navigated as far as modern-day Gailes, near the junction of the Logan and Ipswich motorways. He named the river after Thomas Brisbane, Governor of New South Wales. Allan Cunningham explored upstream of Ipswich in 1829.

It is a river for people, essentially, either on it or by it: for walkers, runners and fitness enthusiasts; skate-boarders, cyclists, rowers and kayakers; boaties, fishers and (unfortunately) jet-skiers; ferry passengers and sightseers; picnickers and partygoers; river police and coastguards; and all manner of workers on barges, platforms, tugboats, liners, tankers and container ships.

Its colour and mood reflect weather and sky. I never tire of looking at it: it is a joy to walk by and sail upon. Other cities' rivers look small and insignificant now by comparison. The Brisbane is mighty and mysterious, winding back on itself as it does so that newcomers become disorientated. Strangely, even at king tides, it is never menacing. And, as people gazed silently at its swollen waters (bottom of post) in the hours leading up to the flood peak, the power of inevitability was mesmeric.

Let's start with mood.
Then birdlife. In 'our' Weeping Figs we have Crows, Magpies, Magpie Larks, Currawongs, Butcherbirds, Noisy Miners, Figbirds, Lorikeets, Rosellas and a pair of magnificent Nankeen Night Herons (immediately below). We occasionally hear Kookaburras just across the river, and one evening a couple of months ago we thrilled to the eerie cry of a Bush Stone-curlew. Closer to the water you will see Herons, Egrets, Cormorants, Darters, Ducks, Gulls, Swallows, Magpie Geese, Striated Herons and, my favourite, Pelicans. There is rarely a dull moment.
As for river craft to-ing and fro-ing, where do I start? With the smallest, I think.
The smallest craft often seem disproportionately noisy. The Cats purr soothingly; the tugs labour unmistakably; the cruise ships glide majestically – and almost silently until signalling their departure with a spine-tingling horn blast; and, rarely, yachts under sail pass peacefully save for the flapping of sailcloth. 

And then there are the bridges. Where would a thriving city on a major waterway be without landmark bridges?
Occasionally there are unexpected visitors...
Brisbane has grown up relatively recently and is not yet a far-reaching city. The contrast between beautiful riverside residences in the burbs and urban jumble is therefore just around a bend or two.
When visitors first come to Brisbane, we take the CityCat route – from the Port of Brisbane to the leafy academia of St Lucia. It is by far the best introduction. Almost three years down the track, I still look forward to catching the ferry rather than any other mode of transport, and it's the best start and finish to a working day (I'm told!). I used to work in a building that overlooked the Thames, and the walk over Waterloo Bridge still provides the best cityscape-by-night in the world, but I don't think I've ever used and enjoyed a river quite as much as the Brisbane.

This post was last edited on 29 September 2012