The Global Change Institute’s Sustainable Water Program facilitated the annual UQ Water Forum from 4–5 July. With more than 100 attendees, the booked-out event was designed to foster collaboration, interaction and integration of water research within and beyond The University of Queensland’s specific disciplines – towards interdisciplinary understanding.
The two-day forum brought together researchers across the diverse UQ research disciplines to engage with key invited external guests from government, industry and civil society on current and emerging water impact issues and policies, and sustainable and innovative responses. The diverse audience provided an opportunity for new thinking and learning, as outlined by Brisbane City Council’s Saul Martinez:
‘I’ve come to this Forum with more questions for you than answers- and where better than ask seasoned professionals and young minds?’ – Saul Martinez, Brisbane City Council
The UQ Water Forum provided a diverse program to ensure audience engagement and maximum possible networking and engagement. This included the use of live mobile polling, which enabled the attendees to outline their perspective on the biggest challenge facing water in Queensland. As shown in the resulting word cloud, water quality is the dominant challenge, followed by communication, collaboration, and governance. The keynote speakers responded to this audience vote by outlining the challenge of attracting policy focus and dedicated funding to issues of water quality when it is less visible than the more visual water quantity concerns that arise during droughts and flooding.
Figure 1: Audience polling results on the ‘biggest challenge currently facing water in Queensland’ (N.B. larger font indicates greater support)
The structure of the UQ Water Forum comprised of five sessions: an opening session that reflected on the recent Federal election and the policies proposed regarding water security and conservation, water’s contribution the economic development in mining and agriculture, the value of integrated water resource management, the efficiencies that are available from consideration of water, energy and food in combination, and the social contribution of water to achieve equity and wellbeing. The complexity of sustainable water solutions to water scarcity was argued, given the bipartisan political focus on dam-building possibilities in northern Australia to increase agricultural production. This was challenged by Professor Karen Hussey:
‘Dams are rarely the answer. But there’s something compelling about pointing to concrete infrastructure and saying ‘there’s the solution.’ – Professor Karen Hussey, UQ Global Change Institute
Despite this diversity of research and topics across the forum program, two themes persistently emerged:
- Acting during a crisis is too late: It was recognised that water crises precipitate a funding and policy focus on water. Droughts, floods and damage to the Great Barrier Reef have all concentrated action on water issues. However, responses during crises risk poor planning, political bias and long-term damage during the lag between the crisis and a response. Instead, the speakers and audience returned to the importance of resilience planning and preparation during ‘non crisis’ periods. Future water ‘shocks’ would only occur if there was insufficient planning, Gold Coast Water’s Paul Heaton said:
‘There should not be future shocks if we are well-prepared. A shock is from not being prepared’ – Paul Heaton, Director, Gold Coast Water
- Collaboration is essential: It was recognised that no agency can effectively plan and act on water management alone; that collaboration is crucial; and that cross-institutional thinking (e.g. IWRM) is required. There was a collective call for water utility leaders to be bolder and more collaborative to ensure policy decisions were guided towards the best outcomes. Fitzroy Basin Association’s Paul Birch outlined the value of collaboration in his central Queensland natural resource management role:
‘We are big on partnerships- because we believe this is how you can get things done’ – Paul Birch, CEO, Fitzroy Basin Association
To create these partnerships, active engagement and collaborative projects were identified by audience participants as the most effective. They rated collaborative projects (such as ARC Linkage grants) as the best way (48%), followed by capacity building (36%), enacted through training, internships and postgraduate scholarships.
The final session of the UQ Water Forum provided a launch of the UQ Discussion Paper focused on the UN Sustainable Development Goals for water, sanitation and hygiene. Nineteen UQ researchers from across a range of faculties and institutes outlined their informed recommendations for how should Australia respond within and beyond its borders. This launch was presented along with four keynote presentations from some of the paper’s authors, and six ‘lightning’ research presentations on related research projects. When asked for their priority on how the UN SDG on water, sanitation and hygiene could be attained, these authors identified:
- Capability building (Declan Hearne)
- Infrastructure (Shabbir Ahmad)
- Understanding the interlinkages of SDGs (Grace Muriuki)
- Identifying socio-cultural considerations and potential barriers (Luis Yerman Martinez)
- Including participatory approaches (Kylie Milligan), and
- Ensuring reflexivity on why past initiatives and efforts have failed, with adaptive learning from these experiences (Dani Barrington).
The Global Change Institute appreciated the generosity of the sponsors who made this event possible. Brisbane City Council, Unitywater and Gold Coast Water provided external support, and UQ’s School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, School of Agriculture and Food Science, and the Sustainable Minerals Institute provided internal support.
For more details, program, abstracts and lightning presentation slides, please visit the UQ Water Forum website.
Below: Launch of the UQ Discussion Paper on Australia’s role to attain the UN Sustainable Development Goal for water and sanitation (L to R: A/Prof. Jon Willis; Prof. Saleem Ali; Dr Paul Jagals and Dr Nina Hall.