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  The Sydney Water Contamination Crisis
   
The Sydney Water contamination crisis: Manufacturing dissent
Science and Public Policy, vol. 25, no. 4, August, pp. 265-271

- Carson, L & White, S (1998)


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The widely publicised contamination of Sydney's water supply in July 1998 felt like a crisis to affected Sydney residents but the rhetoric did not match the reality. We are interested in the way our reality is constructed, the way we manufacture consent or dissent, the way in which some knowledge is privileged and the way that power is attached to this knowledge. The Sydney Water Contamination Crisis sparked our interest because it proved to be an excellent event to watch: we could daily track the construction of 'truth', the attempts to unravel the construction of 'truth', the attempts to unravel or deconstruct this 'truth'. It was also a fascinating study in paternalism and an example of public exclusion from the decision-making process. We speculate on some alternative decision-making approaches which might help us avoid a recurrence of the Sydney case study.

We begin to write this on what we will call Day Seven of the crisis. We count as Day One the Wednesday (29 July) on which some Sydneysiders were first warned not to drink their tap water without boiling it first for at least one minute. Residents in a localised area were advised that parasitic contamination was apparent and a health risk existed. We were sceptical. We understood the difficulty of testing for giardia and cryptosporidium. We knew that they were always present in the water. We wanted to know the levels which had been discovered. We also knew that there is an absence of published safe levels for either of these two parasites. It seems like an over-reaction by an overly cautious public authority so we continued to drink the water.

By Day Three the affected areas had grown in number. One of our colleagues who had been to a medico two days previously with a stomach pain which was diagnosed as gastritis returned to the doctor. She tells the doctor that she had 'had giardia' before and the symptoms are similar. The doctor asks about her symptoms: diarrhoea? bloated stomach? wind pain? stomach spasms after eating? He feels her stomach, states she has giardiasis. No test is carried out. There is a one- to three-week incubation period for giardia. Sydney Water later reports that the health warning was issued within days of the test which indicated an unacceptable level.

On Day Four one of us hears students in the corridors excitedly talking about the water scare. Every shop we enter is filled with conversation about it. Sydney Water is loudly condemned. The Sydney Morning Herald (31 July 1998) prints a graphic coloured photo, a magnified view of giardia lamblia in a human small intestine. The huge headline above it reads CONTAMINATION. A sub-head reads "A taste of the Third World" and the first line states that "Sydney woke yesterday morning and found itself in the Third World". We are having difficulty with the analogy between awful deaths through cholera in developing countries and the low levels of giardia and cryptosporidium that seem to be the basis for the warnings.

One of the authors was once been a local government elected representative and both have a keen interest in all things political, particularly those which relate to public policy. Lyn Carson teaches politics and sociology; Stuart White is a research fellow in water efficiency and sustainability issues. We have both been representatives on the EPA's State Consultation Forum and explored issues of public health. We know or know of many of the people involved in this 'crisis'.

We begin to take a particular interest in it and are increasingly absorbed in the personalities, agendas, complexities, emotions of it all. We begin to track 'the truth'. Throughout it all, we are mindful of the way in which certain knowledge is being privileged, particularly some of the scientific knowledge. We are also aware of the tendency to apportion blame.


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The Sydney Water contamination crisis: Manufacturing dissent
Science and Public Policy, vol. 25, no. 4, August, pp. 265-271

- Carson, L & White, S (1998)


10 pages 40 Kb
[ Download PDF ]

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