By Cindy Yin and Gina Zhu

Sydney’s polluted rivers are getting extra help from a growing band of community riverkeepers, who say environmental policies have been inadequate in maintaining the health of waterways.

An average household in Australia produces 540kg of waste each year, per person, with 130,000 tonnes ending up in our waterways and oceans. With an increase of visits to local parks, shores, and gardens, these numbers could rise exponentially and activists are concerned not enough is being done.

“During a pandemic, you know, they’re picking up more masks, they’re picking up a lot of plastic waste, and our habits have changed through COVID,” Pip Kiernan, chairman of Clean Up Australia Day, said.

On top of an excess of rubbish, the waters of Georges River and Cooks River are also near toxic. Oils, industrial waste, and pesticides carried by stormwater make even a single day of rain harmful to the health of waterways. This not only degrades surrounding ecosystems, killing plants and trees that find nutrients in healthy water, it also impacts the wildlife that rely on the flora for food and shelter.

A Litter Trap and Boom, filled with rubbish and sediment

And people aren’t excluded from the consequences of local water pollution either.

The Georges River Council has repeatedly had to warn residents of unsanitary water that can cause bacterial infections, skin irritations, and digestive issues.

While these aren’t major concerns to adults, they are much more dire for children and pets who are more likely to ingest the water. 

We don’t need a few people doing sustainability perfectly, we need millions of people doing their little bit.

Local communities and organisations, frustrated with a lack of federal policy, are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. Clean Up Australia stresses to residents to recycle and reiterates the importance of picking up after yourself, collaborating with hyperlocal organisations, schools, churches and individuals to collect litter across their local area.

“We don’t need a few people doing sustainability perfectly, we need millions of people doing their little bit and collectively that will have a much greater impact,” Kiernan said.

Another local organisation working to protect river biodiversity is the Cooks River Alliance, which regularly carries out ecological monitoring, community events and interventions such as bushcare.

Thomas Sinclair, executive officer at the Cooks River Alliance, said: “Climate change is already drastically shifting our water management and environments. We need a consistent and robust decision-making framework at a federal and state level to address these transboundary issues in a coordinated manner.

“Greater coordination, strategic planning and ongoing funding is needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the river.” 

Sinclair believes it is through the dedication of community members that the river’s health will be protected and restored. 

“Community members are a source of incredible knowledge, acting as the eyes and ears of the Alliance whilst ensuring that asset managers or owners of the catchment are held to account through coordinated and collective community pressure,” he said. “Put simply, they are the reason there is a future for the river.”

In July, Australia was ranked last by the UN among 193 countries on our initiative to cut greenhouse gases. Australia has continued to hesitate on committing to the global fight against climate change, and it was only last week treasurer Josh Frydenberg came out in favour of zero emissions by 2050.

The New South Wales government has provided guidelines on environmental quality objectives and introduced a Waterways Program to clean up sewage and stormwater in urban areas. It has also announced the abandonment of single use plastics starting from 2022 – an initiative already taken by several local governments. But, community groups say such policies are still lacking.

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