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A Watershed Moment

If you needed confirmation of the crisis ahead for Australia and New Zealand's water management, the Think Future Round Table, Working Together for our Climate Technology Future was a great place to start the conversation.

Spoiler alert! We have no good news” The impact of climate change is now observable

Professor Rory Nathan

Chaired by Mick Liubinskas, CEO and Co-founder of Climate Salad and Professor Rory Nathan, Expert Hydrologist, we navigated our way through the disturbing facts surrounding the alarming extremes predicted for weather patterns in the years ahead. We are bracing ourselves for more and more drought, bushfires and floods and will have shorter horizons or warning time to prepare in between.

Professor Rory Nathan is a hydrologist with 40 years of experience largely in the consulting and public sectors. For the past eight years he has divided his time between research into the impacts of climate change on floods and the environment, private consulting, and on expert review and advisory roles for the federal government. He is a co-editor of Australian Rainfall and Runoff (the national guidelines on flood estimation) and is currently assisting its revision to better incorporate climate change guidance. He has published almost 300 papers in referred journals and conference proceedings on engineering and environmental hydrology. In 2000, Rory was recognized as national “Civil Engineer of the Year” by Engineers Australia, and as the 2018 Munro Orator he is recognized as being one of Australia’s most influential engineers eminent in the field of water resources.”

The news about the weather

The repeated narrative of ‘unprecedented’ weather events can no longer be claimed. Normal weather as we experience it today will become abnormal and we will be lucky to get an ‘average’ year of rainfall. The overall effect of changing and more erratic rainfall patterns means it will be harder to manage uncertainty and water supply reliability will be impacted.

It is clear from the evidence Professor Nathan presented that we are in for some serious challenges ahead due to the compounding impacts of more frequent severe droughts and floods. The prediction based on the evidence is a siren call because the data says we can expect wild swings between droughts and floods, and they will intensify in magnitude.

Furthermore, the thermodynamic influence of the extra water vapor in the air due to an increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius is a big problem. As Professor Nathan explained in simple thermodynamic terms, ''the air gets warmer, and the atmosphere has the capacity to store more water’’. Essentially that means there is more rainfall and all the extra heat in the atmosphere is changing the weather patterns. The common narrative of referring to a 1.5°C increase in global temperature is not helpful because it is hard for people to associate a 1.5°C increase in temperature with crisis. But unfortunately, as we unpacked, it is.

''In fact, storm rainfalls that pose a threat to life and property are expected to increase between 15% to 40% by the end of this century. Projected increases in rainfall are heavily dependent on the rate at which we can reduce our emissions in the near term.”-Professor Rory Nathan

In short this means the more we reduce our emissions, the lesser the projected increase in rainfall.

So, why should we be concerned? Despite the fact that we have dams a plenty located throughout Australia and particularly on the coastline, those dams were designed and built at a lower capacity using out of date precipitation models and guidance. Predicted scenarios, extrapolated from the current data models, indicate that we will need to progressively upgrade the capacity of the dams as the world continues to warm. If we do not, the risk of failure due to overtopping by floods increases, and any such event would have catastrophic consequences on downstream communities.


The term front loading does not relate to washing machines. Front loading relates to weather fronts. It is a term used in the weather world to describe the impact of climate change on weather patterns. As horizon times shrink for warnings of severe weather the term front loading will become normalized.

We need to get much better at predicting climate conditions. Ultimately erratic weather, increased flooding events mixed with increased droughts will require a complete shift in thinking and an increased need for adaptive approaches to weather mitigation as the magnitude and risk of either becomes steeper.

It's time to collaborate for resilience

It is clear that we need to collaborate. But how? That was the purpose of our conversation. Amongst a room full of answers all leading to the need for greater collaboration – indeed radical collaboration, the audience reflected on the seriousness of Professor Nathans message. And the question was asked ‘how do we get government to make water a national portfolio?’

It seems obvious, yet due to the nature of politics, it is not so easy. With a disconnect between planning functions and fragmented and siloed departments looking after the various aspects of water management there is no easy answer. It has long been acknowledged that we have no shortage of resources, what we need most is competent leadership. So, who is going to take the lead then? Decision making needs to include community who have not been informed and communicated with in a way that makes the science accessible or easy to have a commonsense debate. We are at a watershed moment now where we need to make a choice.


''we spend more effort on engaging communities to participate in the decisions affecting them. As Professor Nathan wisely said, ''we don’t want to be having these conversations in the aftermath or during an emergency. Then it is too late’’.


“We need to get used to infrastructure failure and mentally prepare for it.''- Professor Rory Nathan

Professor Nathan believes the balance lies between data and the narrative. We must get ahead of the curve and engage community early before a flood disaster or drought event and plan for resilience. Continuous constructive dialogue is what is required. Unfortunately, despite our most recent catastrophic floods we are none the wiser due to class actions and threatened litigations stifling the much-needed commentary to learn lessons from such events. He emphasized the point, ''We need to design our infrastructure to withstand the pressure without everything stopping.’’

It is logical that we need to prioritize investment in prevention, by using technology and more reliable sensors. AI and other digital technology enable water managers to see where infrastructure like Australia’s dams need reinforcement. Water flows can be diverted when a flood or drought is forecasted using existing sensor technology.

There are also new and innovative solutions that can be explored such as those offered by Restore Blue with an offer to turn unusable farmland into mangrove farms.

There was a consensus that we need to collaboratively disrupt the status quo of water management by our governments, both federal and state. We need to empower ourselves at community level by harnessing the power of data to provide real time information to anyone, making it publicly accessible so the community can make informed decisions. We must demand government transparency, decision making and funding of solutions and make sure community is informed and has a say on how taxpayers' money is spent.

We can learn from our ancestors

It became clear to participants that new strategies are required for sustainable development and water resilience. Aside from the obvious benefits that can be derived from today's technologies and perhaps those yet to be uncovered, we have a lot to learn from our ancestors, who were able to live sustainability for 60,000 years.

Many of the participants in the room also attended Oz Water which was running concurrently. One elder at Oz Water, Phil Duncan offered his wisdom saying ’There are the data and the tools-and then there are the people’’.

The practice of yarning circles by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples was a key theme at the conference. Yarning is a way to listen and invite cross-cultural reflection on solutions to the crises we are facing. It’s time to listen to each other and work together to be better prepared for the challenges to come.

“For those of you who are unfamiliar, yarning is a way to share knowledge, to speak, and to listen from the heart – or, as I like to say, to listen in colour,” -Yawuru/Bunuba woman, Cara Peek

Coming together to overcome boundaries

‘’At the end of the day water doesn’t care about boundaries so why should we? We should act accordingly.”-Don Holland, GHD

Operating from silos is like paddling a canoe upstream. It doesn’t get you far and it is a waste of time and precious energy. The only way to approach this crisis is to do so collaboratively.

We need to turn the collective canoe downstream, and by listening to each other we will naturally synchronize our precious resources and effort. This is a real paradigm shift, an exciting opportunity for us to do things differently. The technical solutions already exist, all we need to do is take the oars and lead ourselves.

Authored by Johanne Gallagher, VinZero Sustainability Development Advisor ANZ.

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