Healthy Rivers – healthy economies

Report back from the 18th International RiverSymposium: Healthy Rivers – healthy economies

Jess Schoeman, ILWS PhD Candidate

Jess Schoeman, ILWS PhD Candidate

Author : Jess Schoeman

Charles Vorosmarty succinctly expressed the essence of river management during his keynote address: “connectivity is the name of the game”. This year, the RiverSymposium sought to explore the connection between healthy rivers and healthy economies as an overarching theme.

The central role of rivers in the rise of human civilisations is deeply etched in our history books, yet we’ve generally followed a pattern of ‘wreck and repair’ in river management. Economic development has occurred at the expense of the environment, and restoring degraded rivers has been costly and difficult.

Many speakers at the Conference highlighted how ecosystem functions and services provided by rivers are often taken for granted and unvalued or undervalued in our economic systems. Only when environmental degradation reaches a crisis point, are we forced to invest in river restoration.

Ecological economists argue that if ecosystem services were accurately valued in monetary terms and internalised into the economic system, there would be a financial incentive to protect them. However, complexities start to creep in when you consider the intrinsic and socio-cultural values of rivers. How can you put a dollar value on the innate joy and spirituality humans seem to feel near water – watching waves crash on the beach, a tranquil waterfall, sunset over a wetland – without cheapening these experiences?

A common thread during the Conference was that connections between healthy rivers, healthy economies and healthy communities are still poorly articulated in political settings. Charles Vorosmarty quoted Rasheed Ogunlaru:

“In our evolution language has been the greatest single contribution to our understanding and misunderstanding”

Our perceptions determine how we engage with water problems and solutions. The question running through my mind was: is money the only language the powers-that-be can understand?

What are we missing when we perceive river degradation as a problem with the economy and frame our solutions in economic language? Most importantly does this economic framing dilute the moral imperative to protect and enhance our rivers? I had plenty of opportunities to discuss these questions and more with my colleagues during the Emerging Water Professionals Program, which was a highlight of the RiverSymposium this year.

Emerging Water Professionals Program (EWPP)

This year’s RiverSymposium included for the first time an Emerging Water Professionals Program, lead by the warm and energetic Vanh Mixap (International RiverFoundation). This was a sub-program designed to maximise our involvement in the Conference and encourage cross fertilisation of ideas between senior and emerging water professionals. A key part of the program was developing a group statement expressing who we are, what we value, why we should be given more opportunities and how we can be better supported, to be delivered at the closing plenary.

The EWP Program was action-packed, starting with a casual ‘meet and greet’ the day before the Conference at the Pig and Whistle on the banks of the Brisbane River. During the meet and greet, we were divided into small groups and given a question posed by a senior water professional. Our task was to produce a short video response using our smart phones.

My group’s response to the question: how can we foster cross-generational learning in both directions within the water sector? (Starring Mark Abela and Pema Dorji). Our video was aired in front of the Conference-at-large during the closing ceremony.

The EWPs had a physical space within the Conference where we could gather, socialise and express our ideas on pin-boards. The EWPP also included special lunchtime sessions where we met the keynote speakers and community and industry leaders. During the ‘Meet the Keynotes’ session, the distinguished speakers imparted pearls of wisdom about how they achieved success in their careers, followed by a question and answer session.

ILWS Director Max Finlayson encouraged the EWPs to seek out diverse experience across locations and disciplines, inside and outside the University environment. Max observed that while there is a certain prestige and credibility that comes with being connected to a University; he has also found his advocacy work and more practical endeavours to protect and restore wetlands extremely rewarding. Angela Arthington encouraged us to search for our niche as we all have the potential to contribute in our own unique way.

Meet the Keynotes session: From left to right Angela Arthington, Caroline Sullivan, Max Finlayson, Tarek Ketelsen and EWP Jenny Sunga-Amparo delivering the final wrap-up (Photo credit: Denise Cheah)

The EWP Statement delivered by representatives of our group during the closing ceremony outlined how the complexity and ‘wickedness’ of water problems requires a diversity of solutions and collective actions. Water issues cut across political, spatial, cultural, sectoral and social boundaries, and the EWPs mirror this diversity as a group.

Caption: The EWPs were a diverse group from multiple cultures, disciplines and backgrounds (Photo credit: Vanh Mixap)

The EWPs were a diverse group from multiple cultures, disciplines and backgrounds (Photo credit: Vanh Mixap)

We represent all the major continents in the world, varying ages, ethnicities and genders. Our professions include scientists, politicians, environmentalists, social researchers, engineers and economists. Despite our diversity as a group, we agreed that we all offer energy, passion, innovative thinking and a willingness to learn and collaborate. Programs such as the EWPP are essential to provide us with the knowledge, connections and opportunities to contribute to improved river management alongside senior water professionals.

The final night of the Conference involved a special EWPP dinner, where we could further solidify connections made during the Conference. I was in awe of the amazing spread of international cuisines from India and Thailand and an extravagant dessert table. It was a night of celebrating the success of the Conference and the EWPP. We also congratulated our colleague Tom Scarborough (Corangamite Catchment Management Authority) who was awarded the Emerging River Professional Award for his work on developing and implementing a new process to improve community scientific knowledge of river issues around the Anglesea River and estuary in Victoria.


The amazing spread of deserts at the EWP dinner (Photo credit: Vanh Mixap)

The EWPP was overall a motivating and engaging experience that facilitated lasting friendships, and hopefully fruitful working relationships for the future. Tanzi Smith (Peter Cullen Trust) reflected my sentiments about the EWPP in her simple message about leadership ‘don’t be a bystander’. Programs such as the EWPP have a critical role in inspiring emerging leaders to find their voice, stand up for the environment and collaborate with diverse stakeholders toward the shared vision of protecting and restoring the world’s rivers.

 EWPs listening avidly during the post-dinner awards ceremony (Photo credit: Vanh Mixap)

EWPs listening avidly during the post-dinner awards ceremony (Photo credit: Vanh Mixap)


My favourite heart-warming river restoration story: upstream-downstream connections in the Aorere River

A big part of the RiverSymposium is celebrating the tireless work of people on the frontline volunteering their time to protect and restore rivers. My favourite heart-warming river restoration story was the winner of the $20 000 New Zealand RiverPrize: the Aorere River in the Tasman District of New Zealand’s South Island.

During ‘ContRIVERsy’, the great debate at the RiverSymposium, Imtiaz Ahmed passionately described the four ‘Ps’ of water management:

“Pollution, politics, power and profit”

Another delegate later pointed out that there is a fifth P: poo. The Aorere River is a story about the fifth P. The catchment is home to 13 000 cows and 35 dairy farms. It became apparent that the levels of cow poo in the river system were causing ecoli contamination in the downstream aquaculture industry, including mussels and cockle farms in the Ruataniwha estuary.

Research in the catchment revealed that cows are 50% more likely to defecate when they’re standing over water (a bright spark in the audience later pointed out that humans defecate over water 100% of the time, in developed countries at least). The New Zealand Landcare Trust played a lead role in bringing different stakeholders together and supporting the Aorere River Initiative, a farmer-led catchment project, to tackle the problem.

A major achievement of the Initiative was the willingness of dairy farmers to address the issues caused by their cows. 24 farms developed farm plans and cows were fenced out of large sections of the river. The Aorere River Initiative restored the ecological health of the river, created community cohesion and assisted the dairy and marine farmers to coexist and maintain their respective livelihoods. The best part of the story: upon completion of the project, the diary farmers and aquaculture farmers got together and had a seafood chowder party. The diary farmers brought the cream and the aquaculture farmers brought the shellfish!

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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