Tag Archives: water conservation

Professor Chiaro Neto

Australian University Science Issue 2: Water Futures

As an increasingly dry continent, Australia faces immense water challenges. Australian universities play a critical role in undertaking research and development to assist in the identification of water management problems, the achievement of water security, and the creation of innovative solutions.

Universities engage at each stage of the innovation cycle to help water managers deliver water security to communities, industries, agriculture and the environment.

The stories within this issue highlight university science contribution to enterprise, education and agriculture in Australia.

In the Foreword to the latest edition of Australian University Science, Professor Rob Vertessy, Enterprise Professor (Water Resources), University of Melbourne looks at the big picture issues in water management.

End-to-end solutions

From catalysing new science to ‘pull’ water out of the air using smart, fundamental chemistry to testing research and development (R&D) directly with end users, universities engage at each stage of the innovation cycle to deliver water security to communities, industries, agriculture and the environment.

Australia’s comparative success in addressing our water challenges has much to do with the fact we have had a strong water research and teaching community that functions as an early warning system for emerging problems, and as a training ground for the advanced technical capability that is entrained in the water sector. This knowledge transfer is needed today more than ever before to contribute expertise to the ‘wicked’ problem of equitable sharing of water as a highly contested resource. Achieving water security is one of the great global challenges of our times.

Related: Water sensitivity can be achieved in Australia

Through ideas and people working within and with Australian university science, we create world-leading expertise in water management problem identification and remediation. We still have many serious water security issues to surmount, as evidenced by the recent crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin. Advances will require a national architecture for identifying and funding research priorities. It will also require the ingenuity, tools and people that can bring together research knowledge with fast, effective delivery of solutions.

Consulting with the university science community, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) and the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) are working to prepare a strategic vision for Australian water research in 2020. That vision will require collaboration between university science, national agencies, industry, researchers, education and end users. Australian universities have a vital role to play in shaping this strategy and promoting it to government.

University science has the facilities, space and expertise to test R&D in the environment in which it will be used, and the remit to train people to address these challenges. Our resilience to a changing climate and water system will rely on this inbuilt capacity and ingenuity.

Professor Rob Vertessy

Enterprise Professor (Water Resources), University of Melbourne

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

Karen Rouse leads a national effort to take valuable water research from university science to industry and end users

The war on waste

With a career spanning 20 years in the water sector, Karen Rouse is well placed to provide leadership in her role as CEO of Water Research Australia (Water RA). She serves on the Board of the Global Water Research Coalition and Water Industry Alliance, and led the CSIRO urban water research program looking at positive environmental outcomes for wastewater treatment.

A native Brit, Rouse worked as a geologist in the energy and construction sectors in Australia before completing her Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Adelaide. The interdisciplinary nature of the course brought a seismic shift in her career.

“The course I studied had science subjects such as conservation, biology and freshwater ecology, but it also included environmental economics, law and a synthesis subject,” she says. “That has enabled me to see how science gets into policy and practice, and to understand the systems that go around it.”

Water RA transitioned from a Cooperative Research Centre with university partners 10 years ago to being fully industry funded today, coordinating collaborative research between universities to tackle water challenges. “Our members are roughly half universities and half industry, including water utilities, health regulators, consultants and a few small niche companies,” says Rouse. “We call them our big team.”

A major challenge is to work out how to reuse water regardless of where it comes from, whether that be stormwater or treated wastewater, to treat it appropriately and then communicate that to the community. “In towns in western New South Wales where they’re running out of water, we are making sure people in leadership have access to accurate and evidence-based information with which to act,” she says.

Water RA also delivers an acclaimed research leadership program that offers industry sponsorship to Honours, Master’s and PhD students, to make them ready for careers in the water sector. “Our success is a 95% rate of employment within the sector when they finish,” says Rouse.

Students receive industry mentorship, attend leading industry conferences, and importantly, an ongoing program aimed at maintaining a lifelong research mindset.

“It’s a risk as a scientist working in industry to become ‘frozen’ in time if you don’t continue to pursue new knowledge and actively keep up with your discipline. That’s where universities play a crucially important role.”

Brendan Fitzpatrick

PATH

>> Bachelor of Science (Hons), University of Exeter 

>> Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Adelaide

>> Senior Environmental Assessment Officer, SA Planning 

>> Principal Strategist, Environment and Sustainability, SA Water

>> Theme Leader, Water for a Healthy Country Flagship, CSIRO

>> Manager, Source Water and Environment Research, SA Water

>> CEO, Water Research Australia

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

Researchers from ANU make a surprising breakthrough for water innovation

University Science Delivering Water Innovation

Peter Mabbitt (left) and Kai Xun Chan (right) from the Australian National University Research School of Biology.

Unexpected outcomes

Scientists from the ANU Research School of Biology made a major breakthrough for world food security while investigating photosynthesis. They discovered that chloroplasts — which convert sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis — can also activate a chemical signal to close stomata on leaves to protect individual plants from losing vital water in drought. By boosting this chloroplast signal in barley plants, the team improved drought survival time by around 50%. The team is exploring ways to boost this chloroplast signal in different crops, through breeding, genetic or agronomic strategies.

Related: The future hydrogen economy is scaffolded by universities

Connecting with industry

More than five million hectares of agricultural land in Australia is hydrophobic, meaning the soil repels water. Global chemical company BASF co-funded research by scientists at Swinburne University, led by chemistry Professor David Mainwaring, with the CRC for Polymers, to develop solutions to help soil accept water. These new soil-wetting agents have increased crop yields. The multidisciplinary team has now patented two polymer surfactants and a soil diagnostic test.

Diverse Teamwork

Murdoch University’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems is tackling clean-energy and fresh-water challenges with a cross-disciplinary approach. Researchers in aquatic biology and ecology, marine mammal ecology, fisheries, aquaculture, algal biotechnology, oceanography, human-use and habitat assessments, bioinformatics, economics and spatial sciences are all working together. One recent project tackled challenges around the release of aquaculture-bred fish into the wild environment.  

Students help scientists from Murdoch University’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems release bream into the river

Creating real value

Inspired by plant experiments on the International Space Station, University of Queensland researchers are advancing the technology of ordinary glasshouses with a revolutionary “speed breeding” technique that can cut plant breeding time in half. Dr Lee Hickey and his team developed a ‘desktop breeding cabinet’ that will allow researchers to develop wheat, barley, canola and other crops adapted to drought, changed local soil and climate conditions.

Dr Lee Hickey from the University of Queensland developed a way to allow crops to adapt to drought in new water innovation
Dr Lee Hickey from the University of Queensland
water sensitivity

Water sensitivity can be achieved in Australia

Featured image above: Achieving greater water sensitivity in Australia is possible if the community is engaged in water management strategies, says a recent report.

Has pursuit of the Australian dream – house and garden on the quarter-acre block – led to unsustainable water consumption? While our population grows and climate change renders rainfall less reliable, millions of backyards in our sprawling cities continue to drink thirstily from increasingly scarce water resources.

But it is possible to adapt our suburbs to become more water sensitive, argues Associate Professor Seamus O’Hanlon, co-author of ‘Water, history and the Australian city: Urbanism, suburbanism and water in a dry continent, 1788–2015’. This new report by the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Water Sensitive Cities is part of research output for Understanding social processes to achieve water sensitive futures (Project A2.1).

The engaging historical account of white settlement and water management in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Perth suggests how such adaptation might be achieved. Arguing that good public policy must be historically informed so that lessons of the past influence practice in the future, the report demonstrates the effectiveness of simple and relatively inexpensive strategies to reduce cities’ water consumption, and makes recommendations for how these measures may be employed as part of an overall strategy toward a more water sensitive future.

Historical context crucial to creating water sensitivity

So can the Aussie dream survive in a water sensitive age? In fact, we have no choice, argues Seamus. “We simply cannot go back to year zero and start again. Rather, we must work with suburban communities to adapt to hydrological constraints.”

A central concept in the report is “path-dependency”, meaning that decisions made in the past constrain contemporary practices and policy options. For example, since the early nineteenth century, Australians have displayed a preference for low-density detached housing with gardens, despite the high per-capita cost of supplying services and infrastructure. That, argues Seamus, is not likely to change significantly.

Traditionally, water shortages in Australian cities have been overcome by increasing supply. Governments and water managers have focused on big engineering solutions, such as more and bigger dams (and, more recently, desalination plants) to “drought-proof” growing cities. Increasing water security during the post-war decades encouraged Australians to develop profligate water-use habits, such as frequent showering, growing lush gardens, and hosing driveways.

It was not until the 1980s that thinking began to turn from increasing supply to fostering more efficient usage. In some cities, residential water use had not even been monitored; and charging residents for its use was unthinkable.

Pricing and public education

The report shows that, while Australians have been extravagant with water, they have always shown a remarkable willingness to adapt water habits and usage (notably for gardens) during times of crisis. In practice, two important but administratively simple and cheap policy changes have had enormous impact on residential water use: water pricing and public education campaigns.

This offers a valuable clue about how we can make our thirsty cities more water sensitive. Our adaptability to changed water conditions demonstrates how attitudes – of both government and the public – can change significantly towards.

“Trusting in people to modify behaviour and having a price mechanism are big, big ways of making changes.”

However, the report points out how quickly lessons of water sensitivity are let go in times of plenty. It argues that we can no longer afford to forget: “In a climate-change influenced, water-constrained future, public education campaigns about the importance of water sensitivity should become a permanent component of public policy.”

Working with people

Working with people is pivotal, Seamus insists. “We need behaviour change, but we have to accept that people want to live in a certain way. So let’s adapt our policies to address that – the obvious one is rainwater tanks. The detached house allows you to capture water, which is not so easy to do in multi-storey blocks and apartments.”

Jean Brennan, Coordinator Water and Catchments at Sydney’s Inner West Council, has had considerable success in delivering water sensitive outcomes through sub-catchment programs in Marrickville that work at the neighbourhood level and involve extensive engagement with local communities and stakeholders. “Every activity we do – from involving whole communities, to individuals and local government staff – is, in effect, public education,” she says.

“This report is a fascinating read and particularly useful for advancing the third pillar of water sensitive cities: cities comprising water sensitive communities,” says Jean. “It brings to light the importance of water professionals needing to understand the full history and context before embarking on plans and decisions around water management.”

Decision makers with historical understanding and support for community participation will develop appropriate, context-specific plans that are broadly supported and likely to be implemented, Jean argues. “This report will support practitioners to do that,” she says.

– Nicola Dunnicliff-Wells

This article was first published by Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities on 26 July 2016. Read the original article here.