Portrait of a river basin

By Peter Wallbrink and Carmel PollinoOctober 27th, 2016

The trials and tribulations of the Murray-Darling Basin have delivered an unlikely outcome – an international relationship Australia now shares with other major river basins across continents. Having learnt how to survive with catastrophic floods and droughts, Australia’s hard-won lessons in managing water under extreme scarcity are now being put to good use at the global forefront of water management at the basin scale.
banks of Koshi River

Koshi River, Bihar, India.

The struggle of Australians to secure food and water supplies is embedded within our culture, from the dreamtime myths of traditional owners, through to stories of early colonial settlement. For more than a century, efforts have been made to ‘tame’ the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB), with nation building investments in water infrastructure, enthusiastic exploitation of the groundwater resource and generous allocation of water resources.

However, a series of extended droughts, combined with a legacy of river regulation, led to a series of environmental crises in the 1980s through to 2009, which brought the MDB river system close to a point of collapse.

Crisis can be a turning point. A response was required, and state and federal governments came together to tackle this mighty challenge. A century of past successes and failures in water planning had taught governments that reform had to be undertaken cooperatively and at the basin scale. Through commitment and determination, progress was made and a pathway to water reform was the hard won outcome. Although not yet complete, these learnings have put Australia at the global forefront of water management at the basin scale.

Having built up a legacy of knowledge, tools and techniques, we are now sharing our lessons learnt with countries who have their own water challenges and don’t want to repeat the mistakes of others. India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Chile and Peru are all starting on their own journey of water reform. We are now on a pathway to applying our knowledge and building capacity in helping governments in resolving, or even avoiding, crises similar to those in Australia.

Different catchments, similar pressures

Every catchment is unique, physically as well as socially. However the pressure on water resources and the causes of these can be quite similar. Over extraction, lack of investment and climate pressures all lead to issues of water security.

wide angle of muddy, wide river with storage structure in foreground

A view from a storage at the headwaters of the Brahmani River.

We have been working in the Brahmani-Baitarni basin in India, the Koshi basin in Nepal, the Copiapó basin in Chile, and the Indus basin within Pakistan—are all struggling to meet the demands of millions of either thirsty people, sprawling cities, water-intensive agriculture or burgeoning industries, whilst dealing with declining water quality and climate change. Such pressures threaten people and the environment’s access to sufficient and clean water resources.

In some international basins, as in the Murray-Darling Basin, the water resource allocations need rebalancing. In other basins, such as the Brahmani-Baitarni basin, there are aspirations to grow water use and there is a demand to explore sustainable opportunities for water related development to secure food supplies and to expand commercial agriculture.

Managing the many competing values and demands of users requires a holistic, whole-of-system approach to basin management. Best practice built through experience tells us that the process needs to consider stakeholders who represent both upstream and downstream interests as well as those who will absorb the consequences of any management decisions—environmental, social, economic and political. This includes making equitable decisions in water planning, including for women and girls, who are often the most disadvantaged in society.

Getting to know a basin

One of the first steps in getting to know your basin is to understand how much water there is and how it is distributed – from a technical perspective we have to get to know the hydrology of the basin. To do this we have to understand its geography, climate and river flows. To understand the use and values, we need to explore its water users, including people, industry and ecosystems, its infrastructure and groundwater resources. We bring together data and knowledge in a mathematical model, defining the baseline condition of the water resources.

In Australia, we could make use of the massive water resource database collected as part of the Water Information Research and Development Alliance (WIRADA) initiative – a joint venture between CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. Over the past 10 years, we have collected, interpreted and shared data about Australia’s creeks and farm dams, all the way up to our major river systems and vast aquifers.

Beyond Australia however, such comprehensive national scale data sets are very rare, and mostly simply don’t exist at all. The information can be scattered between various institutions and agencies and can be piecemeal, and sometimes unreliable.

For example in Nepal, hydrology and climate data for one particular region was compromised because data stations were inadvertently recorded at the wrong elevation. Consequently, local staff had to revisit each station to record the correct GPS data—in some cases, this required a two-day hike in remote mountainous regions.

Earning the trust of local authorities

Trust is a core ingredient in collecting this vital information. It requires time to build the necessary trust with local authorities to the point where they are willing to share more than just the surface-level data. We often find that more data becomes available as the relationship gets stronger. The cost is that we need to regularly revise the models (which takes time and effort), the benefit is that the model increasingly reflects the real world (which naturally builds more trust).

Group of 5 people talking outside

CSIRO and Government of India officials on the first project Brahmani Baitarni basin field trip.

Understanding a basin allows us to paint a detailed biophysical portrait, from its headwaters to the end of the system. This portrait then underpins any policy decisions that might affect, or rely on, the water resources within that basin.

For example, once we have a clearer picture of the water balance in the basin, we can combine that with other important information, such as the irrigated agricultural regions, hydropower infrastructure and socioeconomic assessments of the region, and see how different water management decisions might affect agriculture, irrigation, and the people who live and work in the basin.

Giving everyone a voice

Basin planning is ultimately a social process. As outlined above, there are many stakeholders with interests in the management of water resources of the basin, and they must have a voice in the process along the way. This includes local, regional and national governments; industry – particularly the energy sector in those parts of the world that rely on hydroelectric energy; agriculture; and, most importantly, the communities of people living in the basin.

a crowded boat on a river

Koshi River, Bihar, India.

In exploring alternatives for the future of a basin, people from along the full length of a river basin should have a voice, including in the delta regions where healthy flows nourish fisheries and fishing communities.

Traditional and indigenous communities provide an important perspective and add value to the understanding of systems as dynamic socio-ecological environments, with knowledge extending back hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. The concept of ‘cultural flows’ is now built into Australia’s water resource assessments, and is equally important in other countries where rivers and seasonal water events, such as the monsoon rains, can have cultural and religious significance. The increasing feminisation of agriculture in parts of Asia underlie the importance in building capacity and building resilience in agricultural communities to manage water, with beneficiaries being women and girls.

Understanding trade-offs and revealing opportunities

In a time of changing climates, growing populations and expanding cities, the basin model becomes a vital evidence-based tool for exploring the future of the basin. Once agreed upon by stakeholders, the model can then be used by them to explore and understand the likely trade-offs and benefits of different water management scenarios well in advance of any decisions being made.

woman in rice field carrying bowl on head

Rice crops being maintained by a farmer in a tribal village in the State of Jharkhand, India

And when the big decisions are made, such as changes to water resource allocations, there are no surprises—everyone involved understands the potential benefits, but also accepts the costs.

The models can also help to highlight and understand specific problem areas within a basin. For example in Bangladesh, there is growing concern about salt and arsenic contamination of the groundwater that is used for both drinking and irrigation. The team was able to examine the modelled interactions between groundwater, irrigation and drinking water; and thus understand how this situation arose; and explore various options on how it might be managed into the future.

The basin model can also reveal opportunities; for example, the development of new irrigated agriculture or expansion of hydroelectric energy generation. In the Koshi River Basin, which spans the borders of China, India and Nepal, the potential for hydropower is enormous.

It’s about water… and livelihoods

But it’s not just about water. It’s also about the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people, particularly women and girls.

Basin planning aims to explore the ‘what if’ of basin futures: What if the monsoonal rains are late in arriving? What if a new dam is built upstream? What if a water-sharing agreement with a nearby country changes? What if more water is dedicated to environmental flows? The consequences of all these will have an impact on women and girls and their livelihoods.

water pump in a green field

Groundwater pumps in Pakistan.

Women and girls are amongst the most socially disadvantaged in rural communities. Water is their lifeblood and opportunity. To embed gender in how water resources are managed, we believe women should be part of the decision process, and training programs need to be aimed at women and girls, to build their capacity to take part in these processes.

Consequently, our basin modelling aims to equally incorporate livelihood and socioeconomic as well as biophysical impacts. [ictt-tweet-inline]Ultimately, the process is about people who are living on an economic knife-edge — where seemingly small decisions on national policy can have big impacts on livelihoods[/ictt-tweet-inline].

Enablers and collaborators

Importantly to CSIRO these are truly collaborative projects. We aim to learn as much from our partners as they learn from us. We rely on their wealth of experience of their own water management situations, and their in-depth understanding of the local climate and the complex human interrelationships within the basin.

In the end, the process is also about building capacity on the ground. It’s about cooperatively equipping decision-makers with knowledge, ability and tools that are incorporated into the operational structures of their own agencies and institutions. Most importantly, it’s about those countries using and owning these processes confidently, assessing the impacts of decisions for themselves and guiding their own futures.


Read more about the 2016 World Water Congress held in Brisbane, including a presentation by Dr Peter Wallbrink.

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