Wetland development – Risk too high, impact too great: a duty of care to protect: a call to act.
The last three months (from September 2019) in Australia have changed everything in the way many people in Australia view fire risk and climate change. Trending reduced rainfall and higher temperatures, which have multiple negative effects on wetland ecosystems including risk of fire have raised the probability and potential impact of close vicinity wetland housing developments to an unacceptable level of risk.
In December 2019, 27 leading health and medical organisations in Australia signed a joint statement calling on the Federal and NSW governments to respond to the public health emergency associated with persistent air pollution from bushfire smoke in NSW. The statement made it clear: there is no safe level of air pollution. They requested a multi-portfolio response and the development of a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being. The Statement outlines the need for a nationally ‘coordinated approach to tackling the worsening health impacts of climate change’. There is already an increased demand for health services from extreme weather events, such as bushfires and heatwaves. Health authorities are stating that it is clear that tackling climate change is crucial to minimize health effects of bushfire smoke.
Leading medical journal, The Lancet, has published articles warning of the potentially lethal, suspended fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which affects our respiratory, cardiovascular, and immune systems when inhaled, resulting in respiratory or cardiac collapse in some people. Cities as well as urban areas in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra have experienced PM2.5 over periods longer than one or two days which presents health risks of serious concern – way above levels set by the World Heath Organisation. “Without immediate and efficient climate action, catastrophic bushfires will become a common disaster and might destroy the future of Australia and possibly of humanity.” Published Lancet article January 2020
Reporting in, ‘Special Climate Statement 71—severe fire weather conditions in southeast Queensland and northeast New South Wales in September 2019, the Bureau of Meteorology explained and warned of the potential looming disaster. “Australia’s climate was impacted by a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) in both 2018 and 2019, exerting a drying influence over many parts of the country… While the IOD is a natural mode of variability, its behaviour is changing in response to climate change. Research suggests that the frequency of positive IOD events, and particularly the occurrence of consecutive events will increase as global temperatures rise.”
The report continues with explanations of how the other contributing factors like higher than normal temperature, lower humidity and strong winds create extremely high fire risk. They discuss in detail the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI). This special report, and associated request by the fire department to meet with political leaders, indicates a prior knowledge that catastrophic fire conditions existed. The devastation is clear to see. Strong political leadership is not.
On the 20th January, 2020, a fire, reported to have been deliberately lit near Harvey, created thick columns of smoke. The devastating Yarloop and Waroona fires of 2016 are a reminder of the velocity of fires in this region. The fire at Preston Beach in 2016, which was triggered by a lightning strike tore through almost 70,000 hectares of land, destroyed 180 homes and buildings and resulted in loss of many animals and the lives of two men.
Bushfires in wetlands act differently to dry land bush fires. It is to do with what lies underneath connecting lakes and pre-existing lakes – the peat. It can continue to burn for months. Peat fires continue to burn underground until the ground water levels rise. They need to be replenished by rain creating run off into the lakes and estuaries. Years of lower than average rainfall is leaving areas of wetlands dry in summer time. Peat has a high carbon content, is porous and ignites easily when dry. Lightening, extremely high temperatures and of course bush fires can easily ignite peat.
Photo shows Ramsar-protected Macquarie Marshes wetland on fire with 90pc of crucial reed bed razed (breeding ground to over 20,000 birds). Due to the lack of water from diversion from the Murray-Darling system the river bed was dry and it is possible the ecosystem will not recover.
As the Peel region’s population grows and sprawls over and around wetlands the risk of human initiated ignition increases. Occupational and recreational activities lead to unintentional, and sadly intentional fires. The increasing population, resulting in houses being built closer to wetlands, increases risk of health problems related to fire and smoke. In many cases the new communities draw more water from underground supplies. The Water Authority released new guidelines for underground water use in 2015 hoping to minimise risk to the estuary ecosystem.
The reduced gigalitres level for licenses is essential, and the requirements to find alternative water supplies such as storm water and grey-water has helped slow the withdrawal of the water but we may need to do a lot more to help bushland surrounding wetlands to maintain health and not become fuel for fires.
Climate change, leading to an increase in fire risk has raised the probability and potential impact too high to allow for the continued growth of new subdivisions and retail developments. This is especially so for those near wetlands. It has already been noted by the health department that increased health problems from smoke exposure are occurring in areas where houses are situated close to wetlands. A HealthyWA Fact Sheet explains the risk of exposure to peat-fire smoke is worse than bushfires so even if life and property is not destroyed by the flames the smoke has lethal potential. The smoke is different due to the components and the way it burns. The partially decomposed vegetation contains carbon, sulphur and nitrogen, which if burnt release odorous and irritating gases. Incomplete combustion due to a smouldering effect can also release more fine particulate matter, mentioned above.
The Peel-Yalgorup wetlands are at great risk of degradation from fire as the climate becomes hotter and rainfall decreases. This has been recorded as a trend since the 1970’s. According to health authorities we are now experiencing a climate health emergency and action needs to be taken to minimise all contributing factors. Whilst Statements calling for action continue to be ignored by State and Federal Governments we look to local councils to strengthen programs that encourage farmers to learn about and use regenerative practices such as the program the Peel Harvey Catchment Council is offering. Businesses and service facilities are looking a their carbon emissions but a greater emphasis will need to be on divesting and boycotting corporations and their investors that pursue development that destroys habitat and ignores the voice of the people.
Emergencies lead us to consider actions such as a moratorium on approving progression of earth works that degrade vegetation or waterways, new housing sub-divisions especially near wetlands and other measures appropriate under emergency situations like now. The risk of losing our wetlands is too high, the loss too great.
Brains trust – How does the proposed Point Grey development fit the current aims of preservation of water and ecosystems for wetlands?
Screen Shot from Google Maps above showing unnamed roads in an area that is the proposed 275 Hectare Master-planned residential community and marina site. These are not visible from the gate or Google Earth. Artists impression of foreshore of the site as depicted on the web site indicates massive earth works to obtain depth required.
Google Earth image of the Point showing largely cleared land with fringe of natural vegetation butting the estuary. Low tide results in exposed mud many metres from the shore. How could this artists impression be achieved?
Entry to the western tip of the point (all of image to right) is not possible except by water craft.
May common sense prevail and the land use for this area be deemed for creating a more sustainable and beautiful world. Possibilities include, but not limited to a demonstration site for regenerative agriculture using methods to conserve rainfall, increase micro-climate moisture, prevent high nutrient run-off and erosion or conservation projects including flora and fauna.
To examine this potential acceleration of extinction please go to the Natures Heart Intention Wonderful Wetlands project. The aims are to: reflect on human behavior in relation to Nature; provide basic information on the Peel-Harvey Estuary, a Ramsar listed wetland; identify organisations and projects taking action to regenerate waterways locally; describe some with global importance that effect climate change via hydrology and carbon sequestration to name two processes; and invite you to set an intention that wetlands be protected and regenerated.