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Water research in Australia is at a low ebb: Rob Vertessy

Australia has built a great water sector on the back of long-term, strategic investments in human capacity building, research and technology transfer, but those investments have diminished significantly over the last decade and this does not bode well for the future, a leading figure has warned.

That is the key message from University of Melbourne (UoM) School of Engineering Enterprise Professor Rob Vertessy, who will be speaking at the upcoming 2018 AWA/IWA Young Water Professionals Conference.

"Unfortunately, we are at a low ebb in terms of water research in Australia. I believe we are doing much less than we should be in terms of developing the people, technologies, systems and research institutions that are needed to confront the challenges of the future,” he said.

"We have no national water research strategy, nor any appropriately scaled and governed water research commissioning agency. Research funding from central and state governments is as low as I can recall in my time. More worryingly, it appears that the water industry at large (including government) has become less skilled and interested in engaging with the water research community and directing it to strategic problem-solving tasks.

"With the industry pull for water research decreasing, I fear we are entering a negative spiral that will give rise to far less evidence-based policy and management responses in the future. Personally, I think this is an urgent matter that requires the attention of government."

According to Vertessy, the job of water reform is never complete, and Australia is at risk of diminishing its performance in water management if it doesn't return its attention to research and technical capacity development and the nurturing of water research institutions, which has been slipping in recent years.

Vertessy argued that many parts of the world will be profoundly challenged by water security in this century and that water problems beyond our shores have the potential to affect Australians too.

Water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, for instance, could well trigger regional and food security crises that will give rise to war and further mass migration.

As such, Vertessy commended the initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in investing in the Australian Water Partnership to project Australia’s technical expertise in water across the world. However, he emphasised that this will only be as effective whilst we have flexible technical capacity to project.

"Back at home, there will be more climate shocks in the future and they may well be worse than the ones we have recently scraped through. Meanwhile, we are a rapidly growing nation placing more and more demands on our water supplies and impacting more and more on our aquatic ecosystems," he said.

"Australia has made great strides in coping with climate variability, but we have not overcome the challenge yet because many of the necessary reforms are painful and expensive to implement.

"UoM strives to help water managers understand these changing dynamics and to assist them with policy and management responses that maintain a dynamic balance between water supply and demand.”

With change accelerating on both the water demand and supply sides, Vertessy stressed the importance of nurturing great water leaders.

"Future water leaders will need to be built of tough stuff and draw on as many sophisticated tools as they can. One of these will be great science," he claimed.

Having worked in the water sector for 30 years, Vertessy was formerly the head of the Bureau of Meteorology before joining UoM.

"I really enjoyed both 'halves' of my nine years there. In the first half I was responsible for establishing a new Water Division in the Bureau and creating an operational national water information service. The second half was heading up the Bureau as the CEO," he said.

"In my time at BoM (and previously at CSIRO) I valued working with stakeholders in the water industry to develop an appreciation of what their needs are and how researchers and educators can help them."

Moving on to UoM a year ago, Vertessy said he joined the institution to help with linking the capacity of the university to the needs of the industry.

"Water researchers have made a huge difference in shaping how water is managed in Australia and I want us to be every bit as influential in the future. We must continuously anticipate the next big water problem, research it, understand it and communicate it effectively to the right target audience," he said.

"The university is a place to think deeply and creatively about the problems of the future and how to solve them. We complement technical government institutions like BoM who are focused on delivering operational services.

"What we do share is a common love of science and a belief in its value in informing how we should live in our natural world. Transitioning research into services and policies that shape how people make decisions lies at the core of our collaboration with BoM and other water agencies."

Vertessy also said issues such as dryland salinity, eutrophication of water bodies, erosion and sedimentation, water scarcity, flooding, dam safety, degradation of aquatic ecosystems and water pollution are never really solved and require continuing diligence from institutions and industry.

"Researchers play an important role in monitoring these issues, anticipating when they may flare up again and offering up technical and policy solutions that can be deployed to manage them effectively and efficiently," he said.

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