Looking beyond the water

17th International Riversymposium: Looking beyond the water  

Jess Schoeman, ILWS PhD Candidate

Jess Schoeman, ILWS PhD Candidate

During a conversation about river management, a colleague once said to me, ‘if you’re looking at the water, you’ve got your back to the problem’. This message has stuck with me for many years and motivated my decision to cross over to the social sciences for my PhD research. Understanding human nature and our river cultures is essential for diagnosing the source of our water problems, rather than just treating the symptoms.

The over-arching theme of this year’s International Riversymposium, held in Canberra, was ‘large river basin management’, with three case studies: the Murray-Darling Basin, the Rhine River Basin and the Mekong River Basin. A common thread throughout the conference was the portrayal of rivers as complex social-ecological systems. Managing rivers is not just about ecology and hydrology; it is about people: our philosophies, cultures, needs, wants and desires.

This post explores just a few thoughts from the conference:

Lake Eyre Basin: Building partnerships to protect rivers is just as important as planting trees and removing carp

This year’s Australian Riverprize, including a sum of $200,000, was awarded to the Lake Eyre Basin Partnership. This moment was historic, being the first time in 17 years that the judges awarded the prize to a group for protecting rather than restoring river systems.

This was not a ‘guns-blazing’ project; rather the Partnership’s success came over a long period of time from gently enhancing networks and processes that were already in place. The Partnership has fostered a social identity for the Lake Eyre Basin, by connecting diverse communities (upstream and downstream, Aboriginal communities, regional natural resource management bodies, governments, industries and members of a scientific panel).

Through the Partnership, governments and communities have reached an agreement to protect the natural flow variability and water quality in the Basin. This is a significant achievement considering the Lake Eyre Basin is one of the largest and least developed arid basins in the world, spanning over one million square kilometers through areas of inland Queensland, South Australia, the Northern Territory, and part of western New South Wales.

The story of the Rhine: Change takes a long time, stick with it!

In 1986, the year I was born, disaster struck the Rhine River: a fire at an agrochemical storehouse on the banks of the river in Switzerland caused the Sandoz disaster. Tonnes of toxic agrochemicals entered the Rhine, turning it red and wiping out all aquatic life a 40 km stretch downstream.

The disaster created the political push needed to initiate a massive trans-boundary effort to clean up the Rhine. The International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR) provides a platform for the nine states and regions in the Rhine Basin (including Switzerland, France, Germany, Luxemburg and the Netherlands) to coordinate their activities and harmonize their interests.

28 years (my entire lifetime) after the Sandoz disaster, regeneration activities through the Commission have brought the Rhine back to life. At present, 63 fish species live in the Rhine including sea trout and the European eel. The much-loved, iconic salmon can be found again migrating from the North Sea upstream to Strasbourg in France. ICPR was awarded the prestigious Thiess International RiverPrize at this year’s Gala Dinner to acknowledge their achievement.

Indigenous communities still lack appropriate channels for participation in the Murray-Darling Basin: Sharing knowledge with Traditional Owners on their terms

At the ‘Women in Rivers’ breakfast, Aunty Rochelle Patten, a Senior Yorta Yorta woman with cultural ties to the Murray River, kindly shared her experiences of growing up in northeast Victoria, where she remembers always being by the river. Her stories placed the Murray at the heart of the community, providing not just physical sustenance through the plentiful Murray Cod and Yellowbelly, but a setting for spiritual and social connection. ‘Life was hard’, she said, ‘but on the banks of the river we were always happy because we were together’.

The first Australians have centuries of wisdom about living with rivers. However, Traditional knowledge and values can’t be easily funneled into the scientific management currently applied to our rivers. There were many instances during the Riversymposium where representatives from Aboriginal groups voiced frustrations about a lack of appropriate channels to participate in river management, especially regarding the development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and associated research projects.

The challenge of trans-boundary river management: People have a strong desire to cooperate in the face of water problems

The eternal optimist in me has always felt that people en masse have an inherent urge to work together in the face of resource scarcity. The UN has stated that, at the international level, water provides more incentive for trans-boundary cooperation, rather than war. In fact, looking back over the past 50 years, there have been some 37 cases of reported violence (mostly minor skirmishes) between states over water; while more than 200 water treaties have been successfully negotiated (UNESCO, 2013).

The case studies of trans-boundary river basins at this year’s Riversymposium illustrate the strong desire of humans to seek cooperation in river management, against all odds. The conference was a celebration of passionate individuals and groups who work tirelessly to bridge seemingly irreconcilable geographic distances, competing claims on water, fundamentally different values, diverse cultures (sometimes multiple languages) and power differentials between stakeholders.

Having observed the fraught process of getting just four Basin states and the ACT to sign on to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in Australia, it boggles my brain to consider the challenge of ever reaching a similar agreement somewhere like the Mekong Basin. After rising from the Tibetan Plateau in China, the Mekong travels through China’s Yunnan province, Myanmar, Laos PDR, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The rapid development driven by populous giant China in the headwaters of the Mekong, including significant current and proposed hydro-electricity projects, presents a looming threat to downstream communities whose livelihoods are utterly dependent on the river.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) provides a forum for discussion on sustainable development and water sharing in the Mekong; however, China and Myanmar are yet to progress from being ‘dialogue partners’ to full members of the Commission. While China maintains that they have an absolute right to pursue development on waters within their sovereign territory, the MRC continues to seek cooperative, transparent arrangements through increasing dialogue and information sharing.

The Mekong delegation at the Riversymposium   Pic taken by Fern Hames

The Mekong delegation at the Riversymposium Pic taken by Fern Hames

The Mekong delegation at the Riversymposium linking hands during the conference in a gesture of good will, despite tensions between upstream China and other downstream nations. 

 My take home message from the Riversymposium: transboundary water cooperation is fraught with difficulty – so when it works… now that is worth celebrating!  

Jess Schoeman (2nd year ILWS  PhD student; supervised by Catherine Allan and Max Finlayson)


About ilwscsu
The Institute for Land, Water and Society is one of four Centres of Research Excellence within Charles Sturt University, Australia. Its principal focus is on integrated research which contributes to improved social and environmental sustainability in rural and regional areas.

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