Health, Asia - Pacific, Environment

Australia bushfires taking toll on public health

Bushfires will lead to long-term population loss for some animal species, scientists warn

Burak Bir   | 28.12.2019
Australia bushfires taking toll on public health

ANKARA 

Australia's "terrible" air quality is taking a toll on public health, with hospitals crowded with patients suffering heart and lung damage, said an expert. 

"The air quality over Sydney and Canberra, the capital of Australia, has been appalling," Pep Canadell, a scientist at the Climate Science Centre of Australia, told Anadolu Agency by e-mail.

“Hospitals have been full of people with respiratory and heart conditions, and time will show the true impact when research is done on the health of the population.”

Canadell, who is also executive director of the Canberra-based Global Carbon Project, said the country has several times seen levels of pollution which are above dangerous levels.

Bushfires in Australia which started this August and continue to rage in the summer of the southern hemisphere have exacerbated the situation.

Although bushfires are common in the country, this year they started in the south, instead of the north, and have so far gutted 10 million acres.

Canadell told of a “super fire year in the temperate forests which occur in the south and southeast of Australia. More specifically, the state of New South Wales where most of the fires are occurring, is unprecedented in recorded history with now about 3.5 million hectares [8.6 million acres] burned."

The culprits behind the fires, he said, are drought and extreme temperatures.

"Decades ago, most fires in the temperate forest occurred during summer, then more into spring and fall, and this year the fire season started in winter, so there is less and less time to do controlled burnings," he added.

Warning of the devastating effects of the super fires on wildlife, Canadell said it will destroy habitats, leading to many species suffering long-term falls in populations.

"As a key species, koalas’ habitat, which has been reduced over the decades, have seen the most rapid and devastating reduction during these fires in New South Wales and South Queensland," he said.

- Climate change in Australia

"Over the past 10 years we have seen the collapse of a series of ecosystems with no precedent in the recorded history of the nation," Canadell said, stressing Australia’s position at the front line of climate change.

They include the collapse of mangroves, the breakdown of Kelp forests, and the burning of alpine forests in Tasmania.

On the Australian government's stance on climate change, he said that there have been some positive policies, but much more needs to be done, such as moving away from the use of coal, as Australia is far behind the goals of the 2016 Paris Agreement.

"Climate scientists warned us of these impacts of climate change. And we are experiencing much of what they warned us about," Glen Klatovsky, deputy CEO and campaign strategist at 350 Australia, told Anadolu Agency by e-mail.

He stressed that ironically, Australia is a major contributor to global emissions.

"We are seeing canopy fires and massive ember fronts. Fires that burn much hotter and which move via the canopy rather than along the ground," he said, explaining how the ongoing fire crisis differs from other blazes.

In addition to the physical effects of the fires to human health and environment, Klatovsky said the bushfires have also affected people psychologically.

"Not many people think things are going to get better over the long term and the rural fire service is struggling to get new volunteers and are losing existing volunteers," he said.

People fear for their own homes and communities, he said.

Sating that the federal government is doing little to help the situation, Klatovsky claimed that the government currently lacks a climate change policy.

"There is no renewable energy target. There is no carbon trading mechanism. There is no expansion on our 2015 Paris commitments. There is no national adaptation strategy," he said.

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