Australia’s ‘extreme’ lessons in water management can help the world

Professor Stuart Bunn, Director Australian Rivers Institute

Australians know a lot about dealing with extremes in water – the droughts and flooding rain that plague our already dry continent.

The recent (though quickly forgotten) millennium drought challenged our farming communities but triggered significant changes in rural water management and major improvements in water use efficiency and productivity (link is to a pdf).

The drought also threatened our major urban centres and many cities like Brisbane were at risk from running out of drinking water. Considerable efforts were made to change behaviour, improve efficiency and reduce demand. These reforms have meant that most cities in Australia have been able to halve their per-capita water consumption.

flooding business in brisbane
The 2011 floods in Brisbane damaged numerous businesses and threatened Brisbane’s drinking water supply.

The drought of course eventually broke and was quickly followed by summer rains that culminated in widespread flooding. Again, Brisbane’s water supply was threatened, but this time due to poor water quality from our degraded catchments.

These problems are not unique to Australia and in some parts of world have more dire consequences. More than 80% of the world’s population is exposed to high levels of threat to water security. Australian’s have a lot of knowledge about how to live under the threat of extreme events to water security. We can do more to share this knowledge overseas.

At an upcoming symposium, “Water: It’s not a privilege” we will be discussing these issues with global leaders in water security research. You can get tickets for the event here, which is on the 22nd March as part of the World Science Festival in Brisbane.

Water security is important for aquatic ecosystems too

The threat that extreme events pose to water security is not limited to humans. Freshwater ecosystems are already the most threatened in the world and there is an urgent need to achieve a better balance between the water needs for humans and nature. Australia is a global leader in using science to address this challenge.

This is not just about water quantity but also quality, and our research here in Queensland has clearly shown how “green infrastructure” can help improve water quality in streams. Green infrastructure is simply protecting or replanting riparian and wetland vegetation, which helps prevent nutrients and soil from entering streams and ultimately the sea.

A healthy stream surrounded by rainforest
A healthy rainforest stream near Brisbane

We know this is a major threat to the future health of Moreton Bay and the Great Barrier Reef, and targeted investment from governments and industry will be needed to tackle these problems at their source.

Australian science overseas

The lessons we have learned from managing aquatic ecosystems in Australia will be of great value overseas in countries also facing risks to water security due to increasing population and climate change.

For example, China faces an enormous challenge in addressing water demand and reducing pollution. Their Ministry of Water has established strong collaborations with Australia to improve water planning and develop tools to identify environmental water needs. The Ministry of Environment in China has adopted the approach we have developed in south-east Queensland program for monitoring waterway health, as part of a national trial.

The Healthy Waterways initiative in South-East Queensland used leading science to develop a waterways report card. The report card is presented annually and helps government and community groups monitor their progress toward improving water quality and the other societal benefits that brings. Importantly, the report card is not just for identifying problems, it is solutions orientated. It helps us assess whether management is working.

Looking ahead to global water security

The United Nations have announced another decade of sustainable water management and we have a dedicated Sustainable Development Goal for water. The UN and World Bank have assembled a High Level Panel to facilitate the achievement of the water goal, with ten heads of government including the Australian Prime Minister.

The scientific community as a whole has shifted their focus from identifying challenges to water security toward finding solutions. Australia is host to the international secretariat of the new global water science programme Water Future.

Through this initiative, Australia has the opportunity to share our solutions based research and have global impact.

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