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Pendapat / Opinion

River is not just a source of water

This is the final article in a four-part weekly series on river management sponsored by GAB Foundation, organiser of the recent National River Forum at Putrajaya.

This week, we talk to Assoc Prof Eva G Abal, Director of Water Initiative, University of Queensland, Australia.

Can you tell us a bit more about the waterways of South East Queensland?

Moreton Bay is a bay on the eastern coast of Australia, about 45km from Brisbane, Queensland, and is one of Queensland’s most important coastal waterways.

The Bay and Islands form Brisbane’s very own marine park, and is recognised as one of the world’s best whale watching spots. The bay is shielded by a series of islands, and its relatively shallow depth allows the growth of marine plants like seagrass that is the feeding ground of turtles and dugong. There is also a tourism industry that is based on seasonal whale-watching.
Part of Moreton Bay is also a Ramsar site, or what is known as wetlands of international importance on account of their biodiversity, and is a breeding ground for dugongs, turtles and migratory wading birds.

The bay itself covers 1,523sqkm and has a catchment covering about 21,700sqkm (about the size of the state of Perak), or about 14 times larger than the bay, and includes 14 major river catchments in six drainage basins, with the Brisbane River forming the largest basin. The city of Brisbane, near the centre of the catchment, is the largest urban area.

This is the only area in the world where you can stand on a boat, and see dugongs and turtles as well as the city skyline in the background. This is a high-pressure development area.

What are the challenges faced by the bay?

There are lots of activities ranging from agriculture to urbanisation within the catchments that drains into Moreton Bay. Other activities within the bay itself range from tourism, boating, shipping and fisheries.

Challenges faced include water quality issues from point source pollution and non-urban diffuse source pollution such as runoff from farms. There are nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment loads going into the bay, and the flow of nutrients into the bay also causes occasional coastal algal blooms (especially during the summer months from December to January). Algae can choke waterways and become toxic to humans, fish and other marine life.

Mud is washed off the land into our waterways and oceans which can smother and kill seagrass, thus reducing the amount of food for fish, turtles and dugongs.

The millions of tonnes of mud that entered Moreton Bay during the January 2011 flood have now settled on the bottom of the bay, and this mud layer will negatively impact flora and fauna that live on the bay floor. Unless they get flushed out, mud also gets resuspended all the time. We predict that by 2026, we will have increasing nitrogen loads in the bay.

How did the authorities and citizens come together to do something about the catchment and bay?

The waterways of South East Queensland (SEQ) are an integral part of our lifestyle and economy. The challenge is to sustain the improvements in the face of a rapidly growing population and increasingly unpredictable climate.

It is critical to have a political champion, and the former Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Jim Soorley (holding office from 1991-2003), was the one who started a campaign for the city to embrace the river by pushing for higher sewage treatment standards, and that homes should face the rivers instead of the other way round.

Along the way, there were numerous river beautification projects, including floating walkways along the river. Real estate prices along the river eventually soared because now people want to live along the river.

Healthy Waterways started in 1994 as a collaboration between the Queensland Government, local councils, community organisations, industry and research groups that are committed to improve the health of SEQ waterways through effective catchment management strategies, education and systematic monitoring of ecosystem health.

Healthy Waterways is a not-for-profit, non-government, membership-based organisation working to improve waterway health.

What is the role of scientists and academia in river care?

The Science and Innovation Programme provides independent scientific advice to the SEQ Healthy Waterways Partners as well as ensuring that SEQ Healthy Waterways’ work is based upon solid science.

The Scientific Advisory Group is a consortium of scientists from universities, research organisations, Queensland Government agencies and industry. We communicate the results through a report card based on a grading ranging from A to F, which would let people know immediately where they stand.

We find the report card method to be very powerful. The report, which is a scientifically rigorous product, is presented by the Chief Scientist to the mayor of Brisbane annually. The first report card was given in 1998.

The challenge for river scientists is not just to be able to tell the government that there is a problem, but also where it is coming from, and how it could be handled. In 2010, the bay got its first “D” grade, which was a wakeup call. The background was that there was a ten-year drought, followed by very heavy rainfall, which washed a lot of sediments into the bay.

When we sampled the mud in Moreton Bay and found that 70% of the mud comes from 30% of the catchment. It follows that if you restore 30% of your catchment, you can take care of 70% of the mud, and the ratio is pretty manageable. We don’t even have to look hard for the source. The lesson learnt from there is that now we know that we need to do more than just upgrading sewage treatment plants – we had to restore the catchment.

Healthy Waterways facilitates careful planning and coordinated efforts at local and regional levels among a network of member organisations from the Government, industry, research and the community. We have been studying Moreton Bay since 1992, and learned a lot since then.
The Healthy Waterways Vision is that by 2026, our waterways and catchments will be healthy ecosystems supporting the livelihoods and lifestyles of people in SEQ, and will be managed through collaboration between community, Government and industry. In all these, the role of the universities is very critical.

What can the rest of the world learn from South East Queensland’s experience?

Where rivers are concerned, there is a need to shift how we view it: from a service based, to outcome based. There needs to be a paradigm shift, from viewing a river as a mere source of water, to one where it is integrated as a lifestyle element, and then to treat it like something to be passed on to future generations – where we restore or protect it for future generations, and not so much what we can get out of it.

We also need to transition from being reactive (knee-jerk reaction based), to more risk-based management, for that is the only way to go. The other is the adoption of a whole-of-system outlook when formulating policy, and that includes a need to look at the environment as currency (assigning dollar value to it).

It is also important for the community to celebrate its rivers. In Brisbane, there is an annual river festival, which is a major cultural event supported by all sectors. In Asia, there is still a lot of gross pollutant (floating rubbish) in the rivers, and these need to be cleared first before one can move to the next level, which will be more difficult and expensive. Australia is privileged in the sense that it has moved beyond gross pollutants (things we can see), and is now taking care of nutrients and sediments (less visible things).

Having community, political and academic champions are important. There is a critical role for NGOs like the Global Environment Centre to move things. Organisations like the GAB Foundation are also critical as there is a role for corporate sponsorship in all these.

Lastly, the role of the community also needs to be given due recognition. There is a lot of community involvement in river care, and we sometimes take it for granted. We don’t appreciate it (in terms of dollars), and it is therefore undervalued because it is free. But when you tabulate it up, the amount can be pretty significant on a per hour basis.

Eva G Abal’s expertise includes coordination of multidisciplinary projects, effective science communication, development of Ecosystem Health Report Cards and strategic research planning.FMT

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