Liquid Assets

The Australian National University’s Water Initiative has already made a big contribution to the development and implementation of sustainable water policies in Australia. Now the innovative collaborative work it has done, particularly in the area of resolving transboundary water conflicts, is attracting international attention.

The most commonly quoted piece of poetry in Australia is the following four lines of ‘My Country’:
“I love a sunburnt country/A land of sweeping plains/Of ragged mountain ranges/Of droughts and flooding rains.”

Even the most unpoetic of Australians connects with its evocative encapsulation of the world’s driest populated continent.

The inhabitants of Australia, first its Indigenous people and later European colonists, have been coming up with strategies to survive in a sunburnt country for 40,000 years, but the savage millennial drought, which stretched from 2003-2008 and prompted fears some Australian cities could run out of drinking water, prompted a profound sense of crisis.

That provided a window of opportunity for Dr Karen Hussey of the Australian National University (ANU), to drag academics out of their silos and bring them together to brainstorm about tackling complex water usage issues.

“The ANU Water Initiative came into being in 2005 when the drought meant there was huge demand for expert water resource management,” Dr Hussey explains. “Lots of ANU academics in both the natural and social sciences were making valuable contributions to scientific knowledge and the policy debate but nobody knew what those in other departments were doing.”

Dr Hussey set to remedying that. Soon enough, experts not just from ANU, but also from other Australian universities and Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, as well as senior government officials, were attending multidisciplinary seminars to nut out practical solutions to Australia’s drought issues (and once the drought broke, the subsequent flooding problems). More recently, the ANU Water Initiative has gone global, partnering with UNESCO to establish the UNESCO-ANU Chair in Transboundary Water Governance (the chair is Dr Quentin Grafton); COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology); and the United States Studies Centre.

While the water policy domain is a crowded space, Dr Hussey is proud of the contribution that ANU academics have made to the debate and to policy developments, with the ANU Water Initiative playing an important role in bringing together the research expertise with the people who grapple with the challenges of making policy.

The Initiative has tackled just about every water-related issue imaginable, from the relationship between Indigenous rights and access to water through to the manner in which water-borne diseases spread, but Dr Hussey nominates efforts to promote a holistic view of water and develop frameworks to resolve conflicts over water as shining achievements.

“Historically, policymakers haven’t considered the nexus between the way water is managed and the way other resources such as land, food and energy are managed,” Dr Hussey observes.

“For example, when the Australian government put together a National Water Initiative in 2004, it excluded the energy sector from the water-trading regime despite electricity generators consuming significant amounts of water, often in water-scarce regions.

“Thankfully, in 2011, the Australia’s National Water Commission recommended bringing the electricity sector into the water market partly, I’d like to believe, because of the ANU Water Initiative’s sustained efforts. Our projects have consistently highlighted the need to understand and account for the links between energy and water resources and the need to better integrate these two critically important portfolios to produce sensible outcomes.

“That shift to a holistic worldview is evident in the debate now occurring in Australia around whether or not to embrace coal seam gas. People recognise that while it provides energy security, it could also pollute groundwater and are thinking carefully about what kind of trade-off is made.”

The development of a framework for sustainably managing Australia’s Murray-Darling river system, which flows through five of Australia’s seven mainland states and territories, is also something Dr Hussey believes the ANU Water Initiative has contributed to.

For over a century different states and different industries drawing water from that river system had been unable to work together to preserve its ecological health, resulting in parts of it drying up during the millennial drought.

In 2012 the Australian Parliament enacted into law the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, a comprehensive, long-term water trading and pricing arrangement that promises to restore environmental flows.

A senior figure from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has been seconded to work with the ANU Water Initiative throughout 2014, yet another example of how the Initiative continues to bring policymakers together with the academic community.

“Transboundary water conflicts are a big issue in many parts of the world, particularly in the south-west of the US, as well as Europe, China and South East Asia. Understandably, there’s been a lot of interest in our work in this area from visiting international delegations who are wrestling with issues such as the Mekong River, where some countries want to build dams for hydro-electricity, which will impact on the environment in and food security of neighbouring nations.”

While both sci-fi writers and, more recently, many futurologists have foreseen a thirsty, overpopulated world, Dr Hussey is an optimist when it comes to the water management challenges facing humankind.

“I believe human beings have the motivation and ingenuity to solve these problems. I believe there has been a fundamental mindshift about the value of water that’s taken place in Australia, which now has the potential to be exported around the world.”