Cape Town’s water crisis and other updates


Graphic courtesy of the City of Cape Town

Well-organised journalists keep detailed diary notes on the stories they have written, with the objective of writing updates. This is how the media knows when to descend on the courts when a murder trial finally starts. Or the updates could be on Twitter.

From my lazy post-city desk where I opine and inform about random topics, updates rarely occurs to me. Yet the same subjects crop up again and again: climate change, global warming, ocean pollution, poverty, refugees, fast-changing technology. Yes, who’d be a technology writer today? Blink and you’ll miss it.

So to the updates: you might recall I wrote on February 23 about Cape Town, South Africa, and how it was in danger of running out of drinking water. The city authorities have now decided to defer ‘Day Zero’, when all taps were to be turned off and people would have to queue for water at standpipes.

Nearly a month later, the city authorities, having postponed Day Zero from mid-April to early June, have pushed it out to 2019, on a date to be notified. Level 6B water restrictions are still in place and residents are being asked to limit daily use to 50 litres each.

Cape Town may not have thought ahead far enough to provide the buffer it might need after three years of drought, but they are making up for it with a well-thought out campaign to urge people to save water.

They’d need to, because even though combined dam levels are back to 23.6%, if the level drops below 14%, Day Zero looms again. Cape Town’s authorities are aiming to reduce average water use to 450 million litres per day (last week it was 537m litres). When I wrote my column about this, I was harking back to South East Queensland’s dire days of drought, when our combined dam levels fell below 20%.

Brisbane implemented Level 6 water restrictions, which, if you don’t mind an empty swimming pool and a dirty car, are not too onerous. At that time, people in South East Queensland reduced their daily water consumption to 140 litres per day (half the average use).

Check out the graphic from the City of Cape Town (above) and you’ll get some idea of how bad it could be, even though we now have a Drought-Ready plan.

In a curiously related aside, Cape Town recently had its own outbreak of listeriosis, not (as in Australia) from contaminated rock melons, but from processed smallgoods (with the responsible firm being named).

The Cabinet shuffle continues

Earlier in February I joined the outrage over the disposal of two ex-government filing cabinets, stuffed tight with confidential documents from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The ABC ran a series of stories based on the documents before handing them back (to ASIO).

Not much in the way of updates on that front although PM Malcolm Turnbull, after saying ‘heads would roll’, called for an inquiry and appointed senior public servant Ric Smith to the task. The terms of reference released on February 21 promise a preliminary report in March.

While the Canberra press gallery are waiting for the updates Smith continues with his task of finding out how it happened and how to make sure it never happens again. Smith would appear to have a job on his hands as this was no one-off; the Canberra press has published multiple stories involving confidential documents and diaries turning up in unsecure locations.

For instance this week Canberra Times reporter Andrew Brown turned up a similar story, albeit from 2013. The Department of Social Services sent old filing cabinets to a second hand store. The cabinets turned out to be full of personnel files, with personal information including security clearances. Brown found the un-named resident who, having established what he had bought, spent his own time trying to give the documents back to the department. Only when he wrote to the department was action taken and the cabinets collected.

A Department of Social Services spokesman said handling processes were ‘reviewed and updated’ as a result of the breach.

Mushroom cloud, anyone?

In early January I tried to lighten global nuclear conflict anxiety by revisiting a list of protest songs. This column was notable for the many examples of readers telling me, “Oh but you forgot about Good News Week…”

That’s the trouble with lists: after you’ve read them you wonder why the author bothered. You know the click-bait headlines: “These 12 amazing boob jobs will blow your mind.” And so on.

I’ve been noticing these cartoons of North Korea’s leader and The Donald facing off with missiles, one noticeably longer than the other.

I do wonder how this larrikin symbolism is interpreted in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Mind you, the average NK citizen would never be allowed to see such salacious mischief on their heavily censored Intra-net.

After the fact, I was reading a fascinating book by Simon Winchester who in an astonishing feat of literary and journalistic ambition sums up the history of the Pacific Ocean in just one book. I’m two-thirds of the way in and he gets my vote thus far. The first chapter in Winchester’s Pacific covers the history of nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Winchester does not hold back, telling of the uncaring, nay brutal way the islanders of places like Bikini atoll and the surrounding Marshall Islands were herded up and deposited ‘Elsewhere’ while western forces went about perfecting atomic weapons.

He reveals that between 1946 and 1958 the US detonated 23 atomic bombs on or near Bikini Atoll. Though they moved the islanders, ‘Elsewhere’ did not provide them with enough food. So, half-starving they were transported to another Elsewhere (which did not have a coral reef so they were unable to practice the traditional lifestyle).

Still, it had enough food.

All told, between 1946 and 1962 the US exploded 105 atomic devices in the Pacific. The back story to this is a minefield of missed targets and mishaps, claims and counter-claims, compensation and persistent radiation levels.

I’d recommend Winchester’s book for the thorough way he covers any question which might arise about complex subjects concerning the Pacific; the Ring of Fire, tectonic plates, how Korea became two countries, the theory of continental drift or how surfing became a mainstream sport.

If you want a recap of the Bikini saga, the link below is as good a place as any. Georgetown University’s Timothy Jorgenson covers the sorry history of US atomic testing in the Marshall Islands chain.

He starts with a reference to the genesis of the bikini (swim suit). Who knew that the original 1946 design by Jacques Heim was dubbed ‘Atome’ (French for atom)? Allors!

Oh, and let’s not forget the 193 nuclear tests France carried out in Polynesia between 1966 and 1996. Tests were stopped largely because of protests inspired by the New Zealand government’s nuclear-free stance.

In light of all that, you’d have to wonder why all the fuss about North Korea’s six (6) nuclear missile tests. Whatever case I’m making about super powers, hypocrisy and exploitation of huddled minorities, I rest it here.

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Rising sea levels and apocalyptic fiction

Photo of Kulusuk, Greenland by Nick Russill, flickr/cc

I’d always thought my song about the mountain dwellers ending up on waterfront row because of rising sea levels was not to be taken too seriously. It was an apocalyptic view of what might happen if it didn’t stop raining and, moreover, not a terribly original idea as it turned out. But the risk of flash flooding from above-average rainfall is only half the problem for people living down there, at sea level.

A loyal reader, visiting the coast from cooler climes down south was discussing his theories about rising sea levels and coastal tourist locations like Noosa, given news of the Arctic region’s third winter heat wave in a row. His attention had been drawn to Greenland, where temperatures have remained above freezing at a time of year when it should be at least 30 below. Clearly such weather extremes in the fragile ecosystem of the Arctic region must accelerate the process of rising sea levels?

As The Independent reports, this is happening even though large parts of the Arctic Circle are trapped in perpetual darkness.

New global projections forecast a sea level rise of 2m by 2100, compared to a 0.74m rise in a 2013 study. So far, the forecasts that oceans would rise on average by 3mm a year has provoked a scornful debate between believers and climate sceptics. Yes, the science is not wholly believed. There are people in high places who have made naïve and disturbing statement such as “coal is good for humanity”, at a time when most scientists agree that CO2 emissions, produced largely from human activity, must be reduced.

The spectre of melting polar ice bringing an apocalyptic end to civilisation as we know it has been a favourite theme of science fiction writers for a long time. Now there is even a fiction sub-genre known as ‘cli-fi’ which has spawned many cataclysmic climate scenarios.

The spookiest forecast, before cli-fi was a thing, was The Drowned World, J.G Ballard’s second novel, published in 1962. Ballard’s main character is a scientist in charge of a floating research station, drifting above a submerged London, beset on all sides by encroaching tropical jungle. A 50th anniversary edition (with an introduction by Martin Amis) has been released and it is available as an ebook. I’ve not read it, though, relying on Peter Briggs’ review for the synopsis.

Ballard eerily conjured up a world where polar ice caps have melted and solar storms have left us in an irradiated world. Europe is a series of lagoons, devoid of human life, although the tropical bugs love it!

The most recent book in the cli-fi genre which I have read is The Ice by Laline Paull. Her 2017 mystery novel begins with wealthy tourists aboard the Vanir, traversing previously frozen Arctic oceans. The mission is to find a (now rare) polar bear, but instead they find the thawed body of an explorer who went missing years ago in mysterious circumstances.

Fiction aside, the alarming temperature rises in the frozen north have had a bizarre impact on Europe, the US and Canada in 2018, which at this time of year ought to be seeing the first thaws of spring. A day temperature of 1 degree celsius in Greenland might not seem too warm to us Aussies, but typically the days are often up to 30 degrees colder. And this is not confined to Greenland. The most northern US city (Utqiaguik, Alaska), has also been enjoying a balmy 1 degree celsius − again that’s 22 degrees above average.

Meanwhile,The Independent observed that a relatively high pressure system over Russia and the Nordic north and a relatively low pressure system across the UK resulted in freezing Artic air being drawn towards the UK and causing exceptionally cold weather there.

The chorus of Waterfront Row ponders: “Little did I think when I moved to the mountains, I’d end up on Waterfront Row, renting out my shed to all those who fled the torrents and the foment down below.”

Imagine my chagrin upon writing and recording this song to be told (by a country music fan), that the song was similar (in theme) to Graeme Connors’ A Beach House in the Blue Mountains. I had not heard of the song but googled it (as you do).

We’re not the only ones taking ‘cli-fi’ into the realms of songwriting. Sunshine Coast songwriter Noel Gardner made up this cheery tune about the low-lying island nation of Tuvalu. He takes the role of the climate sceptic to satirise the controversy about Tuvalu and rising sea levels.

Some years back, the tiny Pacific island nation was said to be so prone to inundation its citizens might have to become New Zealanders. As it happens, some 2,400 Tuvaluans have already moved to NZ or neighbouring islands, according to a not-for-profit group that monitors world poverty.

They may have moved too soon, if, as the article below says, Pacific atolls like Tuvalu actually grow and float, becoming impervious to rising tides.

Now, a study confirms what we’ve already known – atolls, and in particular Tuvalu are growing, and increasing land area, writes Anthony Briggs. “So much for climate alarmism”.

Nevertheless, the highest elevation on Tuvalu is 15 feet and it is perpetually exposed to rising sea levels, cyclones and tsunamis.

An article in The Conversation says previous studies examining the risk of coastal inundation in the Pacific region have been conducted in areas where the rate of sea level rise is ‘average’ – 3mm to 5mm per year. A team of authors, led by The University of Queensland Senior Research Fellow Simon Albert unearthed outlying examples.

At least five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands, where sea level rises are in the order of 7mm-10mm a year, have been lost completely to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. A further six islands have been severely eroded. These islands range in size from one to five hectares and supported dense tropical vegetation that was at least 300 years old.

Last year, new projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US revealed that global sea levels could rise by 2 metres by 2100 if emissions remain at their current levels. As the ABC reported, this is substantially higher than the 74cm increase proposed in a 2013 Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Under these new projections, Sydney’s Circular Quay, Brisbane Airport, Melbourne’s Docklands and North Fremantle would be among locations at risk. So too Stradbroke Island, the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, while in South Australia the seaside suburb of Glenelg would also be in trouble.

Scarier predictions have been made, with scientists taking into account the prospect of Antarctica melting, as well as the Arctic, doubling predictions of a 2m rise by 2100.

Should we care? By 2100, the youngest person I know will be 89, so maybe she will care. Her children and grandchildren definitely will.

And what does this mean for Australia, where the majority of the population live along narrow bands of coastal land on the east and west coasts?

You can scare yourself (or reassure yourself) by checking out this interactive website which allows you to see the predicted results of sea level rises wherever you happen to live.

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The risks of losing our digital photos and memories

South Brisbane (Southbank), circa 1978), just prior to construction of the Queensland Cultural Centre) Author’s photo scanned from a colour slide.

Whenever I think about going through our thousands of family and travel photos, be they in digital form, colour prints or scanned to the computer, I develop what migraine sufferers assure me is not a migraine, just a headache.

The problem begins with the lack of a system. Few people other than professional photographers or serious hobbyists catalogue their photos and negatives in a logical way. So good luck looking for that photo of your little brother skateboarding when he was 10. It’s in there somewhere.

Recently, a family member took on a big project – to collect photos across seven decades to put in a book for my brother-in-law’s 70th birthday. This social media-savvy young person wisely, I thought, decided to capture the images permanently in a printed book.

The early contributions of course were box brownie snaps from somebody’s shoebox, scanned and photo shopped where appropriate. Some were from colour slides, also scanned and photo shopped, usually to obtain a larger image. Then we delved into photo albums from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, until the digital folders began.

Maybe we were late adaptors to digital cameras, but we seem to have left film and negatives behind only in the early years of the 21st century. By that time, they’d been in common use for a decade, even though Steve Sassoon of Kodak invented the first digital camera in 1975. We came home after a six-month sojourn abroad in 2004 with 60 CDs of photos we burned from images downloaded on to a borrowed computer.

Since then, my non-system has accumulated piecemeal on laptops, back-up drives and memory sticks. She Who Also Takes Photos has a smarter system in that she can readily find images by subject.

No such luck on my computer. For example, a folder labelled ‘March, needs sorting’ on review contains just 15 (of 97) images worth keeping. In the late 1990s, we both clung to shooting film on SLRs and sending the film off to a cut-price mail order business. Digital cameras and later cameras in smart phones replaced this process, which was costly.  You often had to wait a week or more until you could relive the memories from Aunt Gladys’s 90th. If only she hadn’t blinked.

I recall learning how to produce my own prints from negatives, albeit in black and white. Few young people today would know the thrill of seeing a photo you took that day materialise in a tray of chemicals.

If you watched the Netflix series, The Crown, you’d have seen a dramatization of one of the best film photographers of the time in action. Tony Armstrong-Jones is depicted in the dark-room with his latest amour (Princess Margaret), trying on what appears to be a well-rehearsed seduction technique. He’d taken an intimate shot, with bare shoulders – against mores of the time (1959). Margaret, who comments, “It’s a Margaret nobody has seen,” resists his blandishments (but not for long, Ed).

Film and self-processing makes a comeback

As Alexandro Genova wrote in Time magazine last year, there is a small but determined resistance to digital photography among amateurs and professionals alike. Some are effusive about film and its “unexpected palette, the grain and dynamic range”.

Portraitist Ryan Pfluger says of Kodak’s decision to revive Ektachrome film, that the “creamy ’70s tone” channels his fascination with memory and nostalgia.

Genova’s article is framed by a stunning shot of a wildfire in Glacier National Park, Montana. The image is by professional photographer and artist David Benjamin Sherry, who processes and prints his own work.

“There’s a spirituality that’s connected to it. I go out to take the pictures and at the end of the day I’m by myself, alone with my thoughts, in the dark room. It becomes very meditative,” he told Genova.

No doubt the majority of hobbyists, oblivious to this meditative magic, will continue to snap what used to be called ‘candids’ on their smart phones. They can then post instantly to Facebook, Instagram, or other social media outlets.

The 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean revolutionised the way media covers news. Digital Spy’s correspondent Hunter Skipworth says the stark images of the tragedy were filmed by ordinary people, using their phones to capture images and video. From then on, anytime a major news event happened, anywhere in the world, it would be filmed by a citizen on their smart phone. That was a fairly short advance from the first commercially available digital SLR in 1991 (Nikon’s 1.3 megapixel camera, intended for use by press photographers). By the mid-1990s Casio, Kodak, Sony and others joined the race to produce an affordable digital camera. Digital Spy reveals that Apple had a short-lived flirtation in this field in 1995 with the QuickTake 100. Apple went on to focus on the Iphone with built-in cameras. Good move, Steve.

Most smart phones have cameras which have at least 4 megapixels and often up to 12mp – good enough quality for a ‘citizen’ photo. The practise is so widespread now most newspapers carry a regular ‘reader’s photo’.

However galling that may be to professional photographers and videographers who spent a lifetime learning their trades, it comes down to who first captures the image.

Facebook, which had a modest debut in 2004, surfed in on an explosive wave of change. The introduction of the iPhone in 2007, universal access to broadband and perhaps the invention of the ‘selfie stick’, all helped Facebook become the behemoth it is today.

My friend Mr Shiraz is slowly collecting images of his now adult children (and their offspring), with the idea of permanently preserving them in photo albums. He’s not alone in this quest.

Like others with Gen Y and Gen X offspring, he can see the potential for a catastrophic fail arising from the ubiquitous habit of impulsively posting memorable photos, trusting the archiving to that most nebulous of beasts, The Cloud.

Here’s an example, from the days when hacking mischief was in its infancy, of what can go wrong. In 2001 our computer was infected by the I Love You virus, which among other nasty deeds corrupted all JPG files. It was not such a disaster for us as we were still mainly wedded to film.

As we plough through our old photos, a common problem arises. Here’s your father as a young lad, standing with…now who are those three other people? There’s nothing written on the back and the people who could tell you are long gone.

The same fate awaits the millions of images consigned to the ‘cloud’ –data servers located, well, somewhere. You can establish when the image was taken, but not by whom. Nor, unless someone has ‘tagged’ the images with people’s names, can you determine who is in the photo or where it was taken.

What is even more annoying is not knowing who took the photograph: surely that matters? I’ll leave you with this rare snap of The Goodwills busking in Melbourne’s Bourke Street (a while ago).

No, I don’t know who took it. Perhaps it was a ‘selfie?’


Censorship, guns and the right to arm bears


This image is classified (S) for satire under FOMM’s censorship guidelines

I was idly wondering if I should have a go at George Christensen for pulling that silly, anti-greenies gun stunt at the firing range but self censorship kicked in. What if he knows where I live? I blanched. The process known in journalism school as ‘self censorship by osmosis’ still kicks in, even 18 years down the track.

You may have assumed I was about to jump into the very deep pool of acrimonious discourse about mass shootings, guns and gun control. Actually, no, there are enough rabid views out there from one side and the other. Perhaps you will have seen Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s repost of the kind of vile trolling one can attract by advocating for the environment (if not, don’t bother looking it up – Ed.)

Instead, I thought we should look at a worrisome instance of censorship; where a respected economic analyst/journalist had an article taken down by the national broadcaster, the ABC. Emma Alberice’s reasoned piece about corporate tax cuts was removed by ABC management, reportedly after complaints from on high about its alleged lack of impartiality. Alberice’s article argues there is no case for a corporate tax cut when one in five of Australia’s top companies don’t pay any tax.

After public criticism, the ABC deflected cries of ‘censorship’ saying removing the analysis and an accompanying news story were ‘entirely due to concerns about Ms Alberici’s compliance with ABC editorial policies that differentiate analysis from opinion’.

The analysis has since been scrutinised by experts and given the seal of approval. It has even been re-posted at a public affairs website owned by the eminent Australian, John Menadue, AO. You may recall Menadue. He started his working life as private secretary to Gough Whitlam (1960-67), before forging a career in the private sector then returning to public service in the mid-1970s. He has since led a distinguished career in both public and private life, most notably as an Australian diplomat.

Mr Denmore, one of Australia’s more incisive commentators on media and economics, wrote this in Alberici’s defence:

Mr Denmore (the pseuydonym of a former finance journalist), sees this issue as plain old-fashioned censorship.

He concludes that Alberice was merely offering insights, which have got the nod from some serious-headed economists, as ‘uncomfortable truths’, which those in high government office and boardrooms found too confronting.

Now, a week later, the ABC has reinstated* Emma Alberici’s analysis, albeit with some passages removed. As former ABC journalist Quentin Dempster reported in The New Daily, the author and her lawyers negotiated an agreed form of words for the reposted analysis.

The removal of Alberici’s original analysis coincided with a planned US visit by a high-level delegation of Australian business and government leaders.  The latest advocate of global  of ‘trickle-down economics’,+ President Donald Trump, will meet with PM Malcolm Turnbull today. No doubt Mal will be taking notes on the US president’s ‘open for business’ approach of slashing corporate tax rates from 35% to 21%. Australia’s more modest proposal, which is currently blocked in the Senate, is to reduce the corporate tax rate from 30% to 25%, over a decade.

+A term attributed to American comedian Will Rogers, who used the term derisively, as did later opponents of President Reagan’s ‘Reaganomics’.

The nation’s top business leaders, under the umbrella of the Business Council of Australia, will also meet with US governors and top-level US company executives. Australian State Premiers, including Queensland’s Annastasia Palaszczuk, will also attend.

Business Council head Jennifer Westacott told the Sydney Morning Herald she feels that Australian business is “in the weeds of politics” and

“Meanwhile in the US they’re getting on with it.”

Westacott and Council members support the Australian corporate tax cut proposal as the only policy that can deliver jobs and growth.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten is taking the hard line – a corporate tax cut cannot help ordinary people, at a time when companies are using tax havens and keeping wages low. Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen admits there is a case for company tax cuts, but said the LNP’s plan is unaffordable when the budget is in deficit.

The attempt to gag debate on this subject is, however, more worrying than the toadying going on in Washington. Australia ranks 19th in an international survey of countries judged on press freedoms. Reporters without Borders (RSF) maintains the list of 180 countries, many of whom oppress the media in far more serious ways than plain old censorship.

Australian media freedoms pursued by stealth

At first glance, 19th from 180 sounds good, but Australia has some issues, not the least of which is concentration of media ownership. The risk of self censorship is high, given the lack of job opportunities elsewhere. The 2017 survey notes that new laws in 2015 provide for prison sentences for whistleblowers who disclose information about defence matters, conditions in refugee centres or operations by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

I sometimes fret about a FOMM I wrote before these laws were introduced – an eyewitness account of US Marine movements after a chance encounter at a Northern Territory roadhouse.

“Aw shucks, we all just stopped to use the latrine, Ma’am.”

There’s more: a new telecommunications law has opened the door for surveillance of the metadata of journalists’ communications. Federal police raids on Labor Party parliamentarians in 2016 violated the confidentiality of sources. The Reporters without Borders report says the latter showed that authorities were “more concerned about silencing the messengers than addressing the issues of concern to the public that had been raised by their revelations”.

Meanwhile, a new draft national security bill seeks to restrict foreign interference in politics and national security. It contains secrecy and espionage provisions that could result in journalists being sent to prison for five years just for being in possession of sensitive information.

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, called the draft bill “oppressive and ill-conceived”.

“If this bill were passed, journalists receiving sensitive information they had not sought would automatically be in violation of the law. If this law had existed in the United States in 1974, the Watergate scandal would never have come to light.”

The free-wheeling nature of social media ensures that dissenting discourse does not stay banned for very long, though often exposed to a much smaller audience.

You may censor me, but never my T-shirts

I suppose now you want me to explain the relevance of the Right to Arm Bears T-shirt, eh? This now threadbare item was bought from a tourist shop on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in 2010. I have been trying to find and purchase a replacement online. The manufacturer (Gildan) has similar T-shirts but none as fetching as the grumpy-looking bears wearing hunting jackets.

Wearing a shirt that makes a political point, however ironically, is an individual’s right in a free country to express an opinion. In my case it succinctly states my position on American gun laws, just as another T-shirt bought from a stall at Woodford, depicting a full-masted, 17th century sailboat (”Boat People”) says a lot about my attitude to refugees. Perhaps I should replace it with a Save the ABC shirt. Seems like the ABC needs all the friends it can find.

*Read Emma Alberici’s revised analysis here:

More on press freedom.