Helping to keep rivers healthy all over the world

By Catherine Leigh

We all want healthy rivers. They provide us with fresh water and food, they bring us peace and enjoyment, and a huge variety of plants and animals call them home.

Dr Leigh measuring the health of a local reservoir.

Achieving and maintaining healthy rivers takes effort. One of key ingredients is monitoring. Just like us, rivers need regular check-ups to make sure they stay in good shape and if there are any problems, they are detected, diagnosed and fixed as soon as possible.

In southeast Queensland, the world-renowned Healthy Waterways monitoring program has been running since 2000, producing report cards on rivers throughout the region each year. Researchers at the Australian Rivers Institute (ARI) were instrumental in developing the rigorous science that underpins the program and continue to provide independent scientific guidance today.

Given their expertise in developing river assessment programs, ARI scientists teamed up with several other Australian experts in 2010 as part of the River Health and Environmental Flow in China (RHEF) project to develop similar programs in China.

China is one of the biggest countries on Earth and the most populous. It has abundant streams and rivers, including some of the world’s largest and most famous. As elsewhere, these rivers are under increasing pressure from pollution, urban development, climate change and flow modification.

Improving water quality is essential to the health of the Chinese people and for their economy. It has been estimated that improving the health of China’s waterways could add about one trillion US dollars to their GDP over the coming decades.

China-Australia collaborations are leading to better outcomes for rivers and their management. Dr Yongyong Zhang invited ARI director Stuart Bunn (third from left) and research fellow Dr Cath Leigh (middle) to visit him and his colleagues at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing in September 2016. ARI previously hosted Dr Zhang in 2008, during a collaboration with ARI scientists to develop environmental flow assessments for rivers in China.

I travelled to Beijing in 2010 to collaborate with Prof Yuan Zhang and Drs Xiaodong Qu and Weijing Kong from the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences (CRAES) to develop one of the three Pilot Studies and Report Cards produced for rivers in China as part of the RHEF project. I spent a total of one month in Beijing and, as well as getting to see the Great Wall, Forbidden City and beautiful Summer Palace, my visit helped to solidify an ongoing collaborative relationship between scientists in Australia and China that continues to this day.

In fact, I had a chance to catch up with colleagues from CRAES in September last year when ARI director Prof Stuart Bunn and I were visiting hydrologist Dr Yongyong Zhang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing to help develop models to predict ecological responses to river flow alteration, a key aspect of environmental flow management. We were very pleased to learn that the Pilot Studies from the RHEF project and the work done by the ARI team were fundamental in developing a national river health monitoring program for the whole of China.

Together we can help keep rivers healthy all over the world


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