5 biggest challenges facing Australian water

20 March 2018
Saving the planet's most essential resource
From data collection to climate change, we take a closer look at some of today’s most common challenges facing researchers and experts in water scarcity.
A river carrying fresh alpine water in isolated Australian landscape

World Water Day is a day we can focus our attention on the importance of water and some of the challenges faced managing Australian water catchments and supply. Water is a key driver of economic and social development, it also has a basic function in maintaining the integrity of the natural environment.

We caught up with our Hydrology and Catchment Management experts; Associate Professor Willem Vervoort, Associate Professor Thomas Bishop and Dr Floris Van Ogtrop, from the Sydney Institute of Agriculture and School of Life and Environmental Sciences; and asked them what they thought were the 5 biggest challenges facing Australian water. Here is what they had to say:

1. Australia has the global highest variability in climate and streamflow

Australia has complex variations in rainfall patterns in time and space arising from the combination of the geographic structure and the dual effects of Indian and Pacific Ocean. Due to Australia having the global highest variability in climate and streamflow water management systems would benefit the most from weather forecasting. Forecasting in such variable conditions is very difficult and knowledge about future rainfall is important for agriculture management and planning in arid and semi-arid regions.

2. Water data is still very sparse west of the ranges or away from the coast

Despite all our efforts and investment, data is still very sparse west of the ranges or away from the coast, which makes forecasting and management difficult. We are working on novel solutions to integrate satellite data to fill the gaps. Australia is up there with US and Europe in public (water) data accessibility, we are big proponents of open data and increased data access. Data driven models are helping discover new developments in predicting water availability and quality.

3. Murray Darling Basin management has no easy solutions

The Murray Darling Basin management is very complex, there are no easy solutions. This means all solutions are negotiated in a high uncertainty environment. "Collaboration and communication between the different states and the people is the only way forward, as none of the solutions for the Murray Darling Basin plan are easy, and all will result in pain for some part of the community. But this also means, that the best solutions can only be achieved by negotiation, not by walking away from the process," said Associate Professor Vervoort.

4. Climate change may increase the occurrence of toxic cyanobacteria blooms

Climate change resulting in increasing temperatures and associated increased rainfall intensity will increase the occurrence and risk of eutrophication. Eutrophication is when a body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals and nutrients that induce excessive growth of plants and algae. The factors triggering cyanobacteria bloom formation are found to be especially complex. Recent PhD graduate Liz Symes, investigated the proliferation of undesirable cyanobacteria within eutrophic freshwaters which is now reported on a global scale.

5. Foodborne illness may be linked to source waters used for irrigation of fresh produce

Australian health authorities have confirmed the sixth person has died of listeriosis as a result of consuming contaminated rockmelons. Listeria is a bacteria that can be found in the environment including water sources. This highlights the importance of increasing our understanding of contamination in water potentially used for irrigating fresh produce. Our PhD candidate, Emily White, is currently profiling and monitoring microbial populations in agricultural water. Her research will investigate environmental conditions that influence contamination risk in source waters.

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