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Water professionals should be custodians of Country

The catastrophic bushfires across Australia this summer, on the back of widespread drought (which in many places is the driest on record), and followed by drenching rains over the eastern seaboard of Australia, has for me brought into question the role I should play in the management of our resources, policies and practices. 

In these issues of national scale, there is never a universal fix or a silver bullet approach to optimal resources management, but I cannot escape the realisation that there must be more that I (that we!) can do to significantly limit the destruction of habitat and property, to prevent the tragic loss of life that has occurred, and to offer a more sustainable water future for our farmers and our towns and cities.

This essay presents some personal reflections on weather data, water resources and environmental management, suggesting that it is time we took a firmer stance on the broadly ambivalent response by society to the guidance scientists present on these issues. 

We have paid a price this year that is beyond comprehension – families have lost loved ones, something in the order of 10 million hectares has been burnt and animal losses are so great that local extinction is a likely reality in some areas. Many farms across our country have stopped production, and others are hanging on by a thread. Yes, recovery will occur in the natural environment over time, but the economic cost to our country will run into billions of dollars and there is no price on the tragic loss of life that has occurred. 

So what price can be put on heeding the advice of scientists and resource managers before the next catastrophe plays out? As much as our politicians are on notice to deliver policies and regulations that facilitate and deliver sustainable management of our resources, we, the practitioners in the field, need to lead the way. Finger pointing does no one any good.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Acknowledgement of Country we start meetings and public gatherings with has rung loud in my conscience this summer. In the statement, we acknowledge and pay our respects to the traditional owners and ongoing custodians of the land on which we meet. The reference to Country is significant, with meaning beyond its literal definition. It represents the home of an ancient culture, a rich heritage that has developed over tens of thousands of years, values of respect amongst the people and by the people of the land that sustains them. It recognises the diversity of the land, waterways and fauna and flora in which we co-exist. We seem to think that in making the statement of acknowledging Country, our job is done. More likely, our job has only just begun.

Looking back on the last decade alone, Australia has been challenged frequently by natural disasters and struggles with sustainable water resources management, by an ever-evolving global economy that has battled to rebuild after the global financial crisis. We've been challenged by volatile changes in government and ever-changing administrative and policy directives. 

To me, the net effect is an unacceptably poor report card as custodians of Country. There is obviously a lot of good being done (for example Water Sensitive Cities research, waterway health monitoring, organisations moving towards water stewardship certification, etc.) and there are thousands of people working diligently to achieve a more sustainable future for our country, but collectively, where do we stand today? 

I, for one, cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I have done my job. My land is hurting, my fellow citizens are grieving and many will never be able to rebuild their homes, and areas of grassland and forest will take decades to fully regenerate as sustainable ecosystems.

We need to take a step back and refrain from criticising authorities, the government of the day and ineffective policies, and recognise that our ambivalence, our inability to defend the science and research as a basis for adaptation of policies and practice, is as much a part of the problem as the criticism we raise of others. 

We need to reflect on the cultural treasure we have at our doorstep in Australia, which can offer guidance on the respect and practice necessary to achieve a balance between our aspirations as a growing community and the sustainable management of our natural resources. We need to ask ourselves whether our Acknowledgement of Country is simply a courtesy or a commitment.

Reflect on this beautiful painting by Greg Matthews. I see in it a new beginning in my thinking about why I do what I do, what I should be using as the basis for all the science and engineering that I immerse myself in day to day and how I should reset my purpose as a water professional.

Painting: Custodians by Greg Matthews Custodians by Greg Matthews

Greg Matthews says: “We, the Australian Aboriginal people, looked after the land, its plants and animals, and our environmental management helped maintain a sustainable natural balance. My painting depicts the vibrant colours of Australia and shows some of the animals that can be found across this vast land. Sadly, two of these are now extinct in Tasmania.”

What is the data telling us about our climate?

This article is not intended to take up the climate change debate, but it cannot be presented without some commentary on climate change. In a simplistic view, the climate is changing continuously, as it would be expected to do given the multitude of cosmic forces impacting on the fragile state of our planet, like sun spots, the variable plane of earth’s orbit around the sun and the ‘wobble’ of the earth’s orbital axis. 

On earth itself, the average temperature of its energy sinks, primarily the oceans, continuously shifting as earth adjusts to its own variability and the ongoing impact of carbon emissions, deforestation and a multitude of pollutants discharged to the environment. So, it is hardly surprising that we are finding it difficult to accurately predict the next drought, flood, earthquake or tsunami, or the magnitude and duration of these weather phenomena.

Within the confines of earth, palaeontologists, geomorphologists and geologists have all reported on the remarkable history of our planet’s evolution, including numerous periods of extreme heat and cold, and point to the continuation of this evolution in the millennia to come. Zoom in to the 21st century, and there are many people who have taken the view that our climate is now miraculously predictable, with extremes of heat, cold, precipitation and flood inundation that exist only in the statistics. That is not what we are measuring nor what we are experiencing.

There are many excellent research reports that have analysed Australia’s climate since records began (roughly 150 years ago) and Foley (1957) produced the first definitive classification of droughts. Going all the way back to 1864-66, the droughts are defined by their geographic extent and severity (rainfall deciles), but are remarkable for their frequency. A return period between 10 and 20 years is what the data shows, but to me, this is not the point. We should be looking at the context in which the event manifested, like average ocean and land temperatures at the time, the spatial distribution and intensity of rainfall, atmospheric conditions, such as the density of the ozone layer, extent of the sea ice and Arctic and Antarctic ice caps, etc. 

We cannot say that because severe droughts and floods have occurred with relative frequency over the last 150 years in Australia that there aren’t fundamental shifts occurring in our climate. Our focus should not be on arguing whether or not the climate is changing, but rather on developing an adaptive, meaningful response to what we are measuring. This is not an academic treatise, so I have taken the liberty to reflect intuitively on a few charts and to consider what our response to their information should be.

The charts are easily accessible from the Bureau of Meteorology’s website presenting the Annual Climate Statement 2019:

Mean Temperature Deciles for 2019 Figure 1 – Mean Temperature Deciles for 2019
Just under 50% of the Australian continental landmass experienced the highest temperature decile on record, notably the highly productive south-east quadrant.
(Image: BOM)

Annual Rainfall Deciles 2019 Figure 2 – Annual Rainfall Deciles 2019
This figure mirrors the temperature map, but is notable for resetting the bounds of highest (north-western Queensland) and the lowest (N NSW, SW QLD, Central and NW SA, and NT) rainfall deciles on record.
(Image: BOM)

 Indian Ocean Dipole Index Figure 3 – Indian Ocean Dipole Index (Jul 2015 – Feb. 2020)
In the positive phase of the index (experienced in 2019), which coincides with reduced rainfall and increased temperatures (particularly in Eastern Australia), westerly winds along the equator in the Indian Ocean weaken, resulting in cooler, deep ocean water rising up in the east. This reduces atmospheric moisture levels in Australia’s northwest, impacting on weather patterns across Australia (Further details at

Australian Mean Annual Rainfall Figure 4 – Australian Mean Annual Rainfall
Note the step change from mid-1970s, particularly from the 1980s and extent of the variability in dry and wet cycles from the 1970s, with 2019 the lowest on record.
(Image: BOM)

12-monthly mean temperature anomaly 0C (1910-2019) Figure 5 – 12-monthly mean temperature anomaly 0C (1910-2019)
This remarkable infographic shows the anomaly of mean temperature for each calendar year, compared to the average over the standard reference period of 1961-1990. Again, there is a warming trend evident from 1980 onwards, very significant from 2000, to the obvious extremes since 2013. (Image: BOM)

The above figures clearly point to a rate of change in rainfall and temperature across Australia that is manifesting in observable changes in our weather patterns. It may well be that hydrological analyses that steadfastly refer to records from 1890 are being misinformed by the data, by viewing extreme events as having a probability of occurrence of 1:10,000 years, instead of, say, 1:1,000 years. If we viewed the records since 1970 as the new norm, would the increased likelihood of the extremes we are experiencing now drive changes in drought, flood and land management policies? 

It is not for us to find ways to refute this or to downplay the impact on communities and our economy, but to diligently and actively adapt our analyses and the policies and regulations that follow to better serve our country. We, the specialists in the field, need to be accountable for the message being presented and understood, and then adopted to inform policy.

So, how are we doing?

Is this just another day in the life of an Australian? Just because we can rally around in a time of crisis like no other nation on earth, put our shoulder to the wheel in adversity to come through the catastrophe, or reach out unreservedly to help our citizens and animals in distress, does that mean we are doing okay as professionals? 

Yes, nature will play her hand in a way we would never be able to confront, but there is surely more we can do to change the way we run our country within these extremes of climate. There is surely more we can do to manage our transition between flood and drought.

We should reflect in all earnest on our role as custodians of Country, respect the forces of nature and apply all we know to do the right thing. We shouldn’t ever again tolerate political expediency or be the erudite armchair analyst that points fingers without actually doing something to change the status quo. Reflect then on these images and decide for yourself how we are doing, or what score you would give yourself out 10.

I ask again, is our Acknowledgement of Country a courtesy or a commitment?