This is how regional rail can help ease our big cities’ commuter crush

 Rail investments have brought Ballarat, 
Geelong and other regional centres closer in travel time to Melbourne 
than many outer suburbs.

In Sydney and Melbourne, the squeeze is on. Population is booming; house prices are still rising; roads and trains are congested. Australian governments generally have ignored the benefits of relating metropolitan and regional planning.

However, some state governments are now investigating more integrated sectoral and spatial planning strategies, initially through shifting public sector jobs to regional centres.

In particular, improved regional rail connections do work. Already rail investments have brought Ballarat, Geelong and other regional centres closer in travel time to Melbourne than many outer suburbs, and this trend will continue.

Sydney has similar opportunities with regional rail connections, but has not yet exercised them. Rail services to and from Gosford, Newcastle and Wollongong have improved little over recent decades.

Rail bypasses clogged arteries

For decades, policymakers’ preferred solution to congestion has been adding and widening freeways. But promises of faster travel times and freer movement have been illusory. New roads and freeway lanes induce more traffic and will provide short-lived solutions in our biggest cities.

These cities are the main drivers of Australia’s national economy, attracting advanced business service professionals and knowledge providers.

Access to high-value jobs, transport arteries that function well, and better-managed population growth will become critically important to urban economies as these cities move towards populations of 8 million people.

In Sydney and Melbourne, critics are claiming that major new road projects such as WestConnex and the Western Distributor will increase central city traffic congestion, particularly for work-related journeys.

Victoria proves regional rail works

Contrast that with the success of regional rail development. Victoria has invested several billion dollars in a series of projects. These have raised maximum regional train speeds to provincial cities to 160kph, increased reliability, provided new and much faster trains and transformed frequency.

Image of a regional train
Victoria’s investment in regional rail has quadrupled train services and almost halved travel time between Ballarat and Melbourne.Hugh Llewelyn/flickr

The 119km peak-hour trip from Ballarat to Melbourne before these investments took two hours, with four trains a day on offer. Today 22 daily trains operate in each direction between Melbourne and Ballarat. Boarding the 4.33pm from Southern Cross delivers passengers to Ballarat 65 minutes later.

From Geelong, the transformation has been even greater. The recently completed Regional Rail Link runs 55 daily trains each way. The project was the first to be approved by Infrastructure Australia, backed by A$3.8 billion in state and Commonwealth funding.

Patronage boom calls for more work

These upgrades, however, have become victims of their own success. Some lines have recorded a 300% increase in patronage. Similar increases are projected for the next decade.

Remarkably, within two years of opening, patronage growth has already reached capacityon the inner part of the Regional Rail Link (which segregates metropolitan from country trains for travel to and from central Melbourne). There is little or no capacity for extra trains to be run in peak times.

Trains are becoming ever more crowded. Long-distance commuters have valued their ability to work, read or sleep on these trains, especially during their homeward journeys. They must now compete for seats with others from rapidly expanding western suburbs, which are yet to gain their own suburban train services.

A short-term fix would create longer trains of eight carriages instead of six. A medium-term fix would electrify and provide separate services to the part of the Geelong line that serves the new dormitory suburbs.

These changes need to be complemented by more frequent and better co-ordinated feeder bus services to stations. In addition, easily accessed large commuter carparks need to be built on vacant land on the Melbourne side of the major regional centres.

In the longer term, the answer lies in providing more multiple tracks to fully segregate suburban and regional trains in suburban areas. Providing robust double-line railways in each corridor will prevent the cascade effect that occurs when trains delay each other on single lines.

The completion of level-crossing removals will also allow higher operating speeds and safer operations. Trains will be able to move progressively to maximum speeds of 200kph where feasible rather than 160kph.

Regional cities must avoid past mistakes

These rail investments will further promote population growth in regional cities. Already, regionally developed services, more affordable housing stock and less frantic lifestyles are acting as attractors.

It is essential to integrate the planning of major regional transport projects with spatial planning to avoid the undesirable results of fragmented policy.

Some regional centres are repeating the worst mistakes of metropolitan low-density urban sprawl by expanding on greenfield sites far from town centres. Modelling of Victorian regional towns has shown that they contain in-fill opportunities to at least double existing populations and provide a range of affordable housing options.

To maintain liveability for expected high population growth, heavy rail investment is vital. Carefully targeted regional rail investment can shrink distance, provide access to more jobs and better lifestyles, and contribute to wider housing choices.

This investment is a critical requirement for continued prosperity in Australia’s largest urban centres.


This article was written by:

This article was co-authored by Bill Russell of the Rail Futures Institute, Melbourne.





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Our healthcare records outlive us. It’s time to decide what happens to the data once we’re gone.

 You create a lot of healthcare data during  
your life. What happens after it? 

Death is inevitable. The creation of healthcare records about every complaint and ailment we seek treatment for is also a near-certainty.

Data about patients is a vital cog in the provision of efficient health services.

Our study explores what happens to those healthcare records after you die. We focus on New Zealand’s legal situation and practices, but the issue is truly a global one.

Previously, healthcare records were held in paper form and stored in an archive. Next came the advent of digital storage in on-site databases. In both of these cases, when you died your records were either shredded or erased, depending on the technology.

But it is now increasingly common for healthcare records to be digitised and held in a central repository. They can potentially be held for an indefinite period after someone dies, depending on the jurisdiction.

Should we be worried?

A question of value

Large, population-based healthcare data sets have immense value.

This is particularly true of records that include genomic information alongside other healthcare data – a phenomenon that will only increase as information about a person’s genes is more widely used in clinical treatment.

These posthumous healthcare data sets, which will grow in size and detail over the coming decades, could tell us a great deal about diseases and heritability. Data sets from generations of families and communities may well be available for research, and able to be analysed.

Information on this scale is worth a lot, especially for data storage companies and those with a financial interest in these data sets, such as pharmaceutical companies. Imagine, for instance, if a company could quickly analyse millions of genomes to isolate a disease that could be cured by an engineered pharmaceutical, and the commercial value this would create.

So how will this affect the individual whose data is held and their surviving family? Many people would be willing to donate medical records if the downstream result was beneficial for their community and country.

Yet the lines become easily blurred.

Would it be acceptable if data sets were sent to foreign companies? What if they provided a cure free of charge to the families of citizens whose data they used?

How about if the cure was half price, or full price, but the other option was having no cure at all? Would it be all right for companies to make millions of dollars out of this information? There is no easy answer.

I(mage of Medical information
Every time you visit a doctor’s office, you create data. Keith Bell/Shutterstock

What’s the legal situation?

It’s impossible to talk about the long term fate of healthcare data without considering privacy and consent.

As part of medical research, for example, participants are required to provide informed consent and often the gathered data are anonymised. Access to posthumous medical records, on the other hand, is not highly regulated or protected in most countries, and the laws surrounding access are incredibly unclear.

In New Zealand, a deceased person has no privacy rights under the Privacy Act. And while healthcare data has to be held for a minimum of 10 years after death, the regulatory body which is then custodian of that data may decide – broadly – what purposes it may be used for.

Given that the custodian can be anyone from a health board or local doctor to a commercial institution that stores health records, the situation is exceedingly vague.

Read More: Human embryo CRISPR advances science but let’s focus on ethics, not world firsts

It is often argued that use of anonymous data sets do not require consent from an individual – in our case, a deceased person cannot provide this anyway. However the lines of true “anonymity” are becoming more blurred, particularly thanks to genomics.

Your own genome is partly that of your family and relatives. They may also have an emotional stake, and possibly a legal stake, in any action or research where the genome of a deceased family member is involved.

The medical profession has not always dealt well with consent and ethics issues. In one infamous case, the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks – a 31-year-old American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 – have been used thousands of times in research projects.

She unwittingly made an invaluable contribution to global health, yet she never consented and her family was not consulted.

Then there is the fact that if large data bases are readily available, the possibility of data linkage increases – matching data sets that may belong to the same person – potentially undermining the ability to maintain true anonymity for the individual and their family.

What happens now?

The New Zealand and Australian governments have signalled that healthcare data are a widely underused resource. Commercialisation of such data is a possibility.

At some point, large posthumous healthcare data sets from these countries could potentially be accessed by researchers and private institutions around the world.

It is time for the public to decide what they think is reasonable. If the use of posthumous healthcare data is not aligned with the wishes of society, especially its desire for anonymity, the trust between our healthcare providers and patients may become compromised.

Healthcare data sets have immense value, but the public must be consulted about their use. Only then can the potential of posthumous healthcare data sets be properly realised.


This article was written by:
Jon Cornwall – [Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Health, Victoria University of Wellington]





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Climate change to blame for Australia’s July heat

 Weather changes are here and we had 
better get used to them

Winter hasn’t felt too wintry yet in much of Australia. Most of us have have had more sunshine, higher temperatures, and less rainfall than is normal for the time of year. In fact, Australia just had its warmest average daytime maximum temperatures for July since records began in 1910.

map of recorded Australian temperatures for July 2017
This July saw the warmest average maximum temperatures on record across Australia. Bureau of Meteorology

The north and centre of the continent saw the biggest temperature anomalies as Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland experienced record warm daytime July temperatures. Only the southwestern tip of Western Australia and western Tasmania had slightly below-average daytime temperatures.

Southern Australia was again very dry as the frontal systems that usually bring rain remained further south than usual.

For most of us, warm and dry winter conditions are quite pleasant. But with drought starting to rear its head and a severe bushfire season on the cards, some cooler wetter weather would be helpful to farmers and fire services across the country.

What caused the unusual warmth?

Often when we have warmer winter weather in Australia it is linked to El Niño conditions in the Pacific or a positive Indian Ocean Dipole. Both of these Pacific and Indian Ocean patterns tend to shift atmospheric pressure patterns in a way that brings more stable conditions and warmer, drier weather to Australia.

This year, however, neither El Niño nor the Indian Ocean Dipole is playing a role in the warm weather. The sea surface temperature patterns in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are close to average, so neither of these factors is driving Australia’s record warmth.

A clear human fingerprint

Another factor that might have influenced the July heat is human-caused climate change.

To assess the role of climate change in this event, I used climate model simulations and a standard event-attribution method. I first evaluated the climate models to gauge how well they capture the observed temperatures over Australia during July. I then computed the likelihood of unusually warm July average maximum temperatures across Australia in two groups of climate model simulations: one representing the world of today, and another representing a world without human influences on the climate.

I found a very clear signal that human-induced climate change has increased the likelihood of warm July temperatures such as the ones we’ve just experienced. My results suggest that climate change increased the chances of this record July warmth by at least a factor of 12.

July heat is on the rise

I also wanted to know if this kind of unusual July warmth over Australia will become more common in future.

I looked at climate model projections for the next century, and examined the chances of these warm conditions occurring in periods when global warming is at 1.5℃ and 2℃ above pre-industrial levels (we have had roughly 1℃ of global warming above these levels so far).

The 1.5℃ and 2℃ global warming targets were decided in the Paris Agreement, brokered in December 2015. Given that we are aiming to limit global warming to these levels it is vital that we have a good idea of the climate we’re likely to be living in at these levels of warming.

I found that even if we manage to limit global warming to 1.5℃ we can expect to experience such July heat (which is record-breaking by today’s standards) in about 28% of winters. At 2℃ of global warming, the chances of warm July temperatures like 2017 are 43% for any given year.

Graph showing gradual increase in temperatures worldwide
More Julys like this are on the way as the globe heats up. Andrew King, Author provided

Given the benefits of fewer and less intense heat extremes over Australia at lower levels of global warming, there is a clear incentive to try and limit climate change as much as possible. If we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and hold global warming to the Paris target levels, we should be able to avoid the kind of unusual warmth we have seen this July becoming the new normal.


This article was written by:
Image of Andrew King





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Downsizing cost trap awaits retirees – five reasons to be wary

 Add up all the neglected costs of downsizing 
and retirees have good reason to be wary of making the move.

It’s time to debunk the myth of zero housing costs in retirement if we want to understand why retirees resist downsizing. Retirees have at least five reasons to be wary of the costs of downsizing.

Retirees living in middle-ring suburbs face frequent calls to downsize into apartments to free up larger allotments in these suburbs for redevelopment. Retirees who fail to downsize into smaller units and apartments are viewed as being a greedy, baby-boomer elite, stealing financial security from younger generations.

It also makes sense to policymakers for retirees to move into less spacious accommodation and make way for high-density housing. Housing think-tank AHURI fosters this view. Yet seniors remain resistant to moving, in part because of the ongoing costs they would face.

Further reading: Lack of housing choice frustrates would-be downsizers

The concept of zero housing costs in retirement is based on a 1940s view of a well-maintained, single dwelling on a single allotment of land where the mortgage has been paid off. This concept is incompatible with medium- and high-density housing and refusing to acknowledge ongoing housing costs may cause significant poverty for retirees.

Reason 1 – upfront moving costs are high

When a house is sold the owner receives the sale funds minus the real estate and legal fees. When the same person then buys a different property to live in, they pay legal fees plus stamp duty.

For cities such as Melbourne and Sydney, these costs are likely to exceed A$70,000.

These high transfer costs may mean it is not cost-effective for the person to move.

Reason 2 – levies are high

Because apartment owners pay body corporate levies, people often assume this is just the same as periodic payment of rates, water, insurance and other costs. It is not.

Fees remissions for low-income retirees for rates, power, insurance and water are difficult to apply within a body corporate environment. As a consequence, these are usually not applied to owners of apartments.

The costs of maintaining essential services, such as mandatory fire-alarm testing, yearly engineering certification, lift and air-conditioning inspections, significantly increase ownership costs.

When additional services are supplied, such as swimming pools, gyms and rooftop gardens, these also require periodic inspections. Garbage collection, cleaning, gardening, concierge and strata management services also must be paid.

Owners of standard suburban homes choose whether they want these services, with those on fixed incomes going without them.

Annual levies for apartment buildings vary, but expect to pay between $10,000 and $15,000. They may be more than this.

Reason 3 – costs of maintenance

Image of a lift being used
Lift maintenance is one of many costs that suburban home owners needn’t worry about. shutterstock


Apartments are often sold as a maintenance-free solution for older people. The maintenance is not free. It needs to be paid for.

Maintenance costs are higher in an apartment than a standard suburban home because there are more items and services to be maintained and fixed. Lifts and air conditioning need periodic servicing and fixing. This is in addition to the mandatory inspections listed above.

Reason 4 – loss of financial security

It is a mistaken belief that the maintenance costs that form part of the body corporate fee include periodic property upgrades. This relates to items that are owned collectively with other apartment owners.

Major servicing at the ten-year mark and usually each five-to-seven years after that include painting, floor-covering replacement, and lift and air-conditioning repair or replacement.

Major upgrades may also include garden redesign or other external building enhancement including environmental upgrades. All owners share these upgrade costs.

Costs of upgrading the inside of an apartment (a bathroom disability upgrade, for example) are additional again.

Once the body corporate committee members pledge funds towards an upgrade, all owners are required to raise their share of the funds, whether they can afford it or not. Communal choice outweighs an individual owner’s need to delay upgrade costs.

Owners who buy apartments that are part of a body corporate effectively lose control of their future financial decisions.

Reason 5 – loss of security of tenure

Loss of security of tenure is usually associated with renters. However, the recent introduction of termination legislation in New South Wales gives other owners the right to vote to terminate a strata title scheme. When this occurs, all owners, including reluctant owners of apartments within that scheme, are compelled to sell.

There are valid reasons why termination legislation is desirable, as many older apartment complexes are reaching the end of their useful life.

Even so, as termination legislation is rolled out across the states, owner- occupiers effectively lose control of how long they will own a property for. They no longer have security of tenure, which means retirees may face an uncertain housing future in their old age.

Further reading: Why strata law shake-up won’t deliver cheaper housing

Downsizing raises poverty risks

Because current data sets do not adequately take account of ongoing costs associated with apartment living, the effect of downsizing on individual households is masked.

Downsizing retirees into the apartment sector creates ongoing financial stress for older people. Creating tax incentives to move does not tackle these ongoing costs.

Centrelink payments for of $404 per week are well below the poverty line. Yet we expect retirees to willingly downsize and to be able to cede most of their Centrelink payments to cover high body corporate costs.

Requiring retirees to downsize for the greater urban good will shift poverty onto retirees who could barely manage in their previously owned standard suburban home.

Failing to understand the effect of high ongoing costs associated with apartment living and reinforcing the myth of zero housing costs in retirement will continue to lead to poor policy outcomes.


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The Knowledge City Index: Sydney takes top spot but Canberra punches above its weight

 Sydney has the brightest prospects of the 25 Australian cities 
assessed in the new Knowledge City Index.

A knowledge city has several characteristics, including diverse knowledge industries, key knowledge-producing infrastructure (such as universities and science parks), and a quality of life that enhances the city’s social and cultural milieu.

To understand the impacts of these elements we have built a new Knowledge City Index for Australia. The index, released today, enables us to compare the strengths and weaknesses of 25 Australian cities.

The idea of a knowledge city is not new. But, until now, few have gone further in assessing knowledge cities than definitions to create measures for comparing cities and their knowledge intensiveness.

While many espouse the achievements of specific cities, few offer a systematic analysis of the factors that drive a knowledge city’s success, or develop a methodology for benchmarking them.

Geography still matters

In a digital age, there’s a tendency to consider knowledge exchange as freed from geographical constraints. The argument goes that barriers of linguistic and cultural differences or legal restrictions imposed by countries no longer constrain knowledge. It can be produced or acquired anywhere and, equally, can be shared globally.

Though some may proclaim geography irrelevant, we do not share this view. Rather, we argue that propinquity is vital to the development and transmission of knowledge.

One of the fundamental features of knowledge cities and precincts is the proximity of individuals in generating and sharing knowledge, ideas and innovations.

This proximity generates a culture and conviviality of enquiry. It also allows for the chance acquaintances that supplement formal structures of co-operation.

This capacity to generate incidental enhancement of knowledge delivers on the expectation that cities are the places where knowledge can best be developed and exchanged.

The changing nature of work

And then there are the workers themselves. For workers in knowledge-intensive industries it may be the best of times, as their knowledge, skills, and creativity become increasingly valuable and combine to make them more prosperous.

For other workers, it could be the worst of times, as their hard-won skills and occupational practice become increasingly irrelevant or obsolete. In many sectors, automation, artificial intelligence (AI), big data and machine learning will make more and more jobs redundant, or at least change them fundamentally.

It isn’t only unskilled or semi-skilled workers who face these threats in the changing landscape of work. Technological change and associated economic and social transformations will continue to affect many skilled and professional occupations.

This has led some to question the very future of many professions. It is predicted that close to half of the current jobs in developed economies could be automated or otherwise made redundant by 2030.

The Knowledge City Index

How will all of this play out in Australia?

We know which types of jobs are most likely to decline. We also have some sense of what types of jobs, or at least which sectors, are likely to be most resilient. But this dichotomy of decline and resilience is not equally distributed across the geography of Australian cities.

To create our index, we examined a total of 25 cities and analysed each of them according to its knowledge capital (the underlying knowledge infrastructure) and knowledge economy (the knowledge activation). We combined six different measures, using a data-standardisation process that controls for the size of cities, to compare all 25 significant urban areas.

The framework underpinning the index can be used for comparative analysis of cities in other countries. It’s also repeatable over time, so we can understand how cities are changing.

How 25 Australian cities rate on the six key measures of the Knowledge City Index.

The Knowledge City Index results are mixed.

Five cities in Australia appear to be well prepared for the technological revolution and knowledge transition that are already taking place. Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth qualify as knowledge cities. The remaining 20 cities have observable knowledge limitations to various degrees.

Canberra stands out as one of Australia’s leading knowledge cities, despite its comparatively small population and employment bases. Higher proportions of its population have both knowledge capacity and actually work in the knowledge economy than in any other city.

Cities that have traditionally relied on the manufacturing and mining industries for their employment base lack sufficient knowledge capital and have significant shortfalls in their knowledge economy.

A tale of two cities

The index also provides city portraits that highlight differences between cities. Compare the two largest cities: Sydney and Melbourne:

Graphs showing How Sydney and Melbourne compare on the key Knowledge City Index measures.
How Sydney and Melbourne compare on the key Knowledge City Index measures.

Despite being nearly identical overall, Sydney and Melbourne do demonstrate nuances in individual indicators that reveal their relative knowledge strengths and weakness. Our analysis produces portraits for all 25 Australian cities.

For cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth, the shift to a knowledge economy promises to be “the best of times”. For the other 20 cities, it could well be “the worst of times” if they are unable to adapt to the knowledge economy.

Understanding the underlying components of these changes and exploring the social, political and economic implications that stem from them is fundamental. Only then can we know which cities are likely to be most and least susceptible to the uneven technological advancements underway.


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Finally facing our water-loo: it’s time to decolonise sewerage systems

 Colonial notions of public and private  
space are embedded in sewage systems.

Two current global trends are set to make life rather uncomfortable for cities: climate change and the unprecedented rate of urbanisation.

This combination of extreme weather – often involving sudden deluges of water – and high population density will test even the best sewage infrastructure we have today. In the face of such pressures, how adaptable are our sewage systems?

Colonial heritage in our sewage systems

Sewage systems worldwide commonly consist of flush toilets and pipes that rely on a steady supply of water to transport and deposit bodily waste, either to a wastewater treatment plantor, failing that, simply downstream in the nearest river or straight into the ocean.

Many urbanites around the globe are using sewage systems based on a colonial-era template. Initially implemented to cure London’s “Great Stink” of 1858, when a hot summer combined with the excrement-filled River Thames to create an unbearable stench, sewer systems were public health interventions designed to remove pathogens and “miasmatic” offences associated with bodily waste.

They were first transplanted off Britain’s shores in the reconstruction of Paris from 1850–70, and since then have become embedded culture-specific notions of hygiene and sanitation around the globe.

Such colonial infrastructure is now proving increasingly problematic in the face of human-driven global trends (broadly referred to as the Anthropocene).

Using water to flush waste

A paradox of climate change is that there seems to be both more and less water. In South Asia, for example, at least 1.6 billion people struggle to find drinking water despite an abundance of water generally.

Image of A woman siphoning water from a leaky pipe into a bucket
A woman siphoning water from a leaky pipe into a bucket on the side of the road during summer.Author provided

For residents of Darjeeling, India, where I am currently conducting my PhD fieldwork, this paradox is very real. Monsoons in Darjeeling last from June through August, sometimes longer, and rain falls frequently throughout the rest of the year. On the face of it, Darjeeling should have plenty of water, but in fact it faces increasingly acute shortages during the summer months from April to June.

The town’s water and waste infrastructure was built by the British in the 1930s, for what was then a population of 10,000. Its population now hovers around the 150,000 mark, and surges to more than 200,000 during peak tourist season from March to May. Despite this, there has been little to no official maintenance or upgrade since Indian independence in 1947.

In town, signs that urbanisation has outpaced infrastructure capacity are everywhere. An impressive number of pipes move water to and from the population. Along with electricity wires, these pipes traverse the city along increasingly bizarre and precarious routes. Ad hoc retrofit attempts to meet rising demand appear to be band-aid solutions and, because the pipes leak, often exacerbate contamination.

Image of A typical open sewer in Darjeeling.
A typical open sewer in Darjeeling. Note the pipes on either side are water pipes taking drinking water to homes. Author provided

Darjeeling is instructive because it is a landscape struggling with inadequate infrastructure amid a rapidly urbanising population. In such a landscape, fresh water can be contaminated by sewage outflows, largely because the system is completely dependent on water to function.

Such over-reliance underpins another paradox: modern sewerage systems require water to work and yet, if not context-sensitive nor managed appropriately, can dirty vital waterways.

Closer to home

Australia is not immune to such problems. Our changing climate means we too face more severe droughts along with heavier rainfall events. Under these conditions, our sewage systems are under increasing stress.

Earlier this year Melbourne experienced summer flash floods which strained the city’s sewage systems, contaminating three public beaches. In February a heavy downpour in Western Australia caused concern over sewage contamination in the Swan River.

Such experiences are not isolated, and are likely to increase in incidence across the world. They provide important lessons and act as a catalyst for rethinking our relationship to water and waste, particularly amid concerns over water scarcity and extreme weather conditions in southern Australia.

Alternative futures

Many social scientists are now researching alternative forms of infrastructure that are contextually relevant, embedded in community values, and adaptable to current environmental challenges.

These alternative forms include moves to re-examine our relationship with waste in farming, use dry composting toilets, and install public bio-toilets along India’s main railway corridors.

As for my home town of Adelaide, the capital of the driest state on the driest inhabited continent on Earth, should we really continue to use water to flush bodily waste?


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AFRICA (To drink or not to drink, that is the question)

Did you know that Africa is the second driest continent after Australia? True fact.

Water in any country is the “Root of Life” and a basic human right , but for many of the worlds most vulnerable people, water pollution is a daily crisis faced by millions.

Unfortunately, water pollution is a huge problem throughout the continent of Africa, and sadly the underlying cause of almost every other problem going on there as well.

Yes I know, it is important to note, that water pollution exists everywhere around the world, however, Africa still remains one of the most heavily polluted continents when it comes to water supply.

In Africa, it is such a widespread problem that not one of the countries within it, is free from water pollution, many suffer from a lack of water altogether.

Of the one billion poverty-stricken people who reside there, the majority do not have access to clean, safe water at all. That is the equivalent of 1 n 8 people on the planet.

It’s hard to imagine the impact these polluted water sources have on a person, until you take a look at the facts.

There are numerous reasons why poverty has become such an epidemic in Africa. It can be caused by political instability, ethnic conflict, climate change, and many other man made causes, but the one that stands out the most in this country is the most overlooked, and that is lack of access to clean drinking water.

In order for people to understand just how significant the problem is, lets take a look at just how many diseases can be spread through water contamination alone. Whilst there is an endless list of diseases that can be transmitted to a person via the water, these are the ones that the people of Africa must face on a daily basis:-


Whilst Malaria is spread by mosquitos who breed in unclean water supplies, it is pregnant women and children under the age of five who are a greater risk. Though Malaria can strike at any age.


 This is a disease that affects the liver and can cause fever, significant weight loss, diarrhoea and a lot of pain and discomfort to the person. Even though in countries such as Australia, The UK and USA they have the resources to treat the disease, people in developing countries don’t and often succumb to it.


 A person infected with Cholera will experience diarrhoea, vomiting, as well as leg cramps. The dehydration caused by cholera can lead to death very quickly.


 Once again, Dengue fever is spread by mosquitos, and again, the chances of coming down with it are much higher in places where mosquitos breed, such as in unsanitary water conditions. Symptoms include, rashes, extreme pain all over, headaches and high fever. Whilst it isn’t always fatal, it can lead to liver malfunction which is.


 Parasites love to breed in unsanitary conditions, Giardiasis, ringworm, trichinosis, hookworm, scabies, and many others are present in the waterways. Again the parasites may not cause death, but transfer from one person to another is likely. When both animals and people share the same water, they are consumed and the stomach and other various parts of the body become breeding grounds. Even if you don’t drink the water, but an animal you consume does, you are likely to become infected by water-borne disease and illness.

When people become ill, they usually dehydrate, and without access to clean water, have no other choice but to consume the very thing that is killing them in the first place.

It is estimated that one child dies every few seconds from water related illnesses in developing countries throughout the world. Frightening statistics.

There are something like 319 million people living in Africa who don’t have regular access to sustainable, clean drinking water. This is a huge number, which might be hard for you to actually comprehend. To put it into perspective, in 2014 the total population of the USA was estimated at 318.9 million. The number of people living in Africa without access to clean water is equivalent to the entire population of the USA.

In Africa, approximately around 650 people a day die from water-related diarrhoea. The majority of these people are babies, pregnant women and the elderly.

Fourteen countries in Africa are affected by water stress, and they predict that in the next ten years, they can add another 11 to this group, which in turn means that almost half of the countries across the continent will not have access to enough water to sustain the people who live there.

Now lets look at the waterways in the Country. Of the rivers and lakes that exist throughout Africa, eighty of these are shared buy more than one country at a time. When so many people rely on one single source of water, it can lead to political and environmental issues. For instance, if one country decides to dam up a river, then people in another country that rely on that same water source experience the ramifications of such and act.

The environment is suffering badly also. Endangered species that can only survive in African conditions are slowly dwindling because of the disappearing and contaminated water source.

In Niger River alone, there are 20 species of fish and mammals that should be thriving and that don’t exist anywhere else in the world, however their numbers are depleting annually. Although conservation efforts are being made to rescue these animals, it’s believed that some of them will soon disappear forever.

To make matters worse, the infected fish and animals are consumed by the population. Adults have to face the decision every day, not only for themselves but their children, die from starvation and dehydration, or literally put their lives in the hands of mother nature. The risks of drinking contaminated water are just as severe as the risk of drinking no water at all.

Water Aid Australia, are forging ahead in leaps and bounds, to combat the problems in Africa.

To them the solution is surprisingly simple. Long lasting water projects such as wells, dams, rain catchments, etc can be built which will provide a reliable source of safe water to consume. However the villagers need to be training in hygiene practice to ensure that it remains clean and free of disease.

The water projects aren’t expensive to set up, and the impact they can have on a community is priceless. But to set them up takes money. Money clearly a country such as Africa, doesn’t have, so this is where the generosity of others comes to hand.

If you can help assist this project in any way, please log onto

Would you deprive your own child of fresh drinking water????


Victoria may soon have assisted dying laws for terminally ill patients


 Assisted dying legislation is likely to be 
introduced inVictorian Parliament within a month, and be based on a report 
launched today by Brian Owler and Jill Hennessy. JOE CASTRO/AAP

Last Friday an independent group of experts set up by the Victorian government  delivered its final report outlining 66 recommendations for how voluntary assisted dying would work in the state.

Chaired by former head of the Australian Medical Association, Brian Owler, the Ministerial Advisory Panel’s role was to work out how legislation should be drafted to allow terminally ill people to receive assistance to die. The panel based its report on the recommendations of the Parliamentary committee’s Inquiry into end of life choices in December 2016.

Legislation giving effect to the report is likely to be tabled in the Victorian Parliament within a month.

Who does the law cover?

At the heart of debates about assisted dying are eligibility criteria – who can get assistance to die and who cannot. The panel’s recommendations are broadly consistent with the report of the parliamentary committee. Access is allowed for an adult who can make their own decisions, is terminally ill and their suffering cannot be relieved. They must also be a resident of Victoria.

But the panel widens the committee’s earlier recommendation that a person must be “at the end of life (final weeks or months of life)” to be granted their request. Instead, the current report states the “incurable disease, illness or medical condition” must be expected to cause death in no later than 12 months.

While we agree eligibility should be based on a terminal illness, we don’t favour time limits as they are arbitrary and difficult to accurately predict. They can also lead to people taking harmful steps to fall inside them, such as starving themselves.

But the panel’s recommendation to extend the time to 12 months is still a better approach than the committee’s, as it is likely forming a clinical view about prognosis will be more manageable in that time. Providing a set time frame also avoids the uncertainty of the vague use of the phrase “at the end of life”.

Former AMA president, Professor Brian Owler, chaired the Ministerial Advisory Panel.

Also of note is that the panel specifically stated mental illness alone and disability alone will not satisfy eligibility requirements; but nor will they exclude access to voluntary assisted dying.

What assistance can be provided?

This is primarily a physician-assisted dying model, which means the patient is expected to take the lethal dose of medication themselves. This is a narrow approach to assisted dying as it is the person themselves who takes the final step to end life, not the doctor.

The panel’s approach is consistent with the committee’s report – both are broadly along the lines of the US assisted dying model such as the one in Oregon.

There are downsides to this and we favour a more inclusive model (like in Canada or under the European model) that permits assistance to die being directly provided by a doctor as well. This choice better reflects the autonomy that underpins these laws.

But the panel (and the committee) did recommend an exception where the person is physically unable to take the medication or digest it themselves. This may not be used often but helps address potential discrimination, for example on the grounds of physical disability which prevents someone taking the medication themselves.

What safeguards are there?

The panel has proposed a very rigorous process – comprised of 68 safeguards – that involves three separate requests for voluntary assisted dying (one which is witnessed by two independent witnesses) and two independent medical assessments.

A patient seeking assistance to die must be provided with a range of information including about diagnosis and prognosis, treatment options available, palliative care, and the expected outcome and risks of taking the lethal dose of medication. Doctors involved will have to receive special training about the law and how it operates.

Other safeguards are at the systems level, with a Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board recommended to examine each case and also to report on how the scheme as a whole is operating. The panel has also proposed a range of new offences specifically about voluntary assisted dying to deter conduct outside the scope of the regime, such as an offence against inducing someone to request assisted dying.

Will these recommendations become law?

Strong public opinion, shifting views in the health and medical professions and international trends towards allowing assisted dying mean it will become lawful in Australia at some point. But will it be in Victoria, and soon?

The politics of assisted dying are notoriously fickle and this is the latest of over 50 bills in Australian parliaments addressing this issue over the past two decades.

But as we have argued in the past, features of this law reform effort suggest it could happen. The process of examining the issue has been very careful, inclusive and thoughtful with multiple reports and engagement with expert opinion and national and international evidence.

This is a narrow assisted dying model with a lot of safeguards. There is also high level and public support of senior politicians on both sides of politics. But as always, the ultimate test is what happens on the floor of parliament.

This article was co-authored by:






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In banning plastic bags we need to make sure we’re not creating new problems

Image of a bin full of plastic garbage bags What will we do for 
bin liners now? AAP Image/James Ross

The recent decision by Australia’s big two supermarkets to phase out free single-use plastic bags within a year is just the latest development in a debate that has been rumbling for decades.

State governments in Queensland and New South Wales have canvassed the idea, which has been implemented right across the retail sector in South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

So far, so good. But are there any downsides? Many of you, for instance, face the prospect of paying for bin liners for the first time ever. And while that might sound tongue-in-cheek, it shows the importance of considering the full life-cycle of the plastics we use.

Pros and cons

On a direct level, banning single-use plastic bags will avoid the resource use and negative environmental impacts associated with their manufacture. It will reduce or even eliminate a major contaminant of kerbside recycling. When the ACT banned these bags in 2011 there was a reported 36% decrease in the number of bags reaching landfill.

However, the ACT government also noted an increase in sales of plastic bags designed specifically for waste. These are typically similar in size to single-use shopping bags but heavier and therefore contain more plastic.

Ireland’s tax on plastic shopping bags, implemented in 2002, also resulted in a significant increase in sales of heavier plastic waste bags. These bags are often dyed various colours, which represents another resource and potential environmental contaminant.

Keep Australia Beautiful, in its 2015-16 National Litter Index, reported a 6.2% reduction in the littering of plastic bags relative to the previous year, while also noting that these represent only 1% of litter.

Meanwhile, alternatives such as paper or canvas bags have environmental impacts of their own. According to a UK Environmental Agency report, a paper bag would need to be re-used at least four times, and cotton bags at least 173 times, to have a lower environmental impact than single-use plastic bags in terms of resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes.

This illustrates the importance of considering the full life cycle of shopping bags to arrive at an evidence-based decision rather than one based on emotion or incomplete data. I am not suggesting this is the case with plastic shopping bags; I’m just pointing out the value of proper analysis.

Simply banning a certain type of bag, while this may be a good idea in itself, could result in other knock-on impacts that are harder to manage. Replacing shopping bags with heavier, more resource-intensive ones may solve some environmental impacts but exacerbate others.

Plastics, not plastic bags

In a 2016 discussion paper, Western Australia’s Association of Local Governments suggested the focus of action should be plastics in general, not just shopping bags.

As the Keep Australia Beautiful data show, plastic bags are just a small part of a much bigger problem. Many other plastic items are entering the litter stream too.

With this in mind, it pays to ask exactly why we are banning plastic shopping bags. Is it the litter issue, the potential impact on wildlife, the resource consumption, all of the above, or something else? Is it because they are plastic, because they are disposable, or because it saves supermarkets money?

The answers to these questions can guide the development of an effective strategy to reduce the environmental (and perhaps economic) burden of taking our shopping home. With that in place, we can then develop an education strategy to help shoppers adapt and make the scheme a success. But this costs money.

The triple bottom line

There should be plenty of money available. The Victorian state government’s Sustainability Fund, for instance, has A$419 million to spend over the next five years on researching alternatives to shopping and household waste management. Developing a shopping bag strategy would consume only a small part of this and would be money well spent.

The concept of the “triple bottom line” – ensuring that decisions are based equally on environmental, social and economic considerations – needs to be applied to decisions about whether to ban single-use plastic bags, and what alternatives will result. The problem with simply announcing a ban is that this leaves it up to shoppers themselves to work out what to do to replace them.

Evidence-based policy is crucial. We first need to find out how many people already use re-usable bags, whether they always take them to the shops, and what items they put in them. Do people generally know how many times each type of bag should be re-used in order to be an environmentally better choice than the current plastic bags? What’s the best material for re-usable bags, taking into account not only their environmental credentials but also their ability to get your shopping home without breaking?

When it comes to environmental impacts, it’s important not to simply exchange one problem for another. If all we’re doing is swapping between different types of plastic, it’s hard to see how we’re solving anything.

This article was written by:
Image of Trevor ThorntonTrevor Thornton – [Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University]






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New complementary medicine health claims lack evidence, so why are they even on the table?

Image of a bottle of complementary medicine

The Australian drugs regulator is overhauling the health claims made 
by suppliers of complementary medicines, including homeopathic therapies. 
And some curious options are up for discussion.

Australia’s drugs regulator seems to be endorsing pseudoscientific claims about homeopathy and traditional Chinese medicine as part of its review of how complementary medicines are regulated.

In the latest proposed changes, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is looking at what suppliers (also known as sponsors) can claim their products do, known as “permitted indications”. An example of a “low level” permitted indication might be “may relieve the pain of mild osteoarthritis”.

If approved, the suppliers can use this permitted indication to market its listed product, one of about 11,000 listed complementary medicines on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (indicated by “Aust L” on packaging).

However, the spreadsheet of 1,345 draft permitted indications includes many that seem to lack evidence to back them.

Images of bottles of complementary medicines
Complementary medicines are the subject of the latest TGA review of permitted health claims. Author provided

For instance, despite the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Complaints Resolution Panel upholding complaints of a lack of evidence that magnesium (and homeopathy) “relieves muscle cramps (and restless legs)”, this permitted indication is on its draft list.

Other examples include “supports transport of oxygen in the body”, “regulates healthy male testosterone levels”.

The list contains around 140 traditional Chinese medicine indications, such as “Harmonise middle burner (Spleen and Stomach)”, “Unblock/open/relax meridians”, “Balance Yin and Yang”.

There are also around 900 additional indications for unspecified “traditions”. These include, “Renal tonic”, “Helps healthy liver regeneration”, “Emmenagogue”, “Vermifuge” and “Vulnerary”.

Endorsing traditional medicines without evidence they work

Australia is a multicultural society, and it’s appropriate we respect and have some knowledgeof complementary medical traditions.

Some observations made in these traditions have led to valuable, efficacious medicines, such as Artemisinin derivatives isolated from a herb used in traditional Chinese medicine.

However, scientific investigation has not substantiated many other aspects of such traditions, such as the homeopathic principles of “like cures like” and traditional Chinese medicine concepts of meridians through which the life-energy known as “qi” flows.

We also cannot assume traditional medicines are safe, as emerging data highlights how common adverse reactions and drug interactions really are.

Image of complementary products claiming to work on colds
Just because complementary medicines are based on long-held traditions doesn’t mean they work or are safe, as international data show. Author provided

For example, Hyland’s homeopathic baby teething products were recalled by the US Food and Drug Administration and then the TGA. This was because lack of quality control over potentially toxic ingredients – belladonna alkaloids – associated with adverse events in hundreds of babies.

In China, out of the 1.33 million case reports of adverse drug event reports received by the National Adverse Drug Reaction Monitoring Center in 2014, traditional Chinese medicine represented around 17.3% (equivalent to around 230,000 cases).

What we propose

Listed medicines, like those mentioned, are meant to contain pre-approved, relatively low-risk ingredients. They should be produced with good manufacturing practice and only make “low-level” health claims for which evidence is held. However, the TGA does not check these requirements before the product is marketed.

So, to safeguard shoppers, consumer representatives (of which I was one), suggested the proposed list of permitted indications should be short and only contain modest claims such as, “may assist” or “may help”.

We also argued that, for consumers to make an informed purchase, claims based on “traditional use” should always have a disclaimer along the lines of what the US Federal Trade Commission uses for homeopathic products.

For example, “This product’s traditional claims are based on alternative health practices that are not accepted by most modern medical experts. There is no good scientific evidence that this product works”.

However, industry representatives argued they needed a long list of permitted indications to allow consumers to tell the difference between one product and another. They also argued that disclaimers for traditional medicines were unnecessary. Their wishes made it to the draft list, rather than ours.

While we welcome moves to better regulate complementary medicines in Australia, this current list of permitted indications, without disclaimers, represents a government endorsement of pseudoscience.

Worse, it will encourage consumers to purchase often ineffective and sometimes dangerous products.

This article was written by:
Ken Harvey – [Associate Professor, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University]






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