To understand the value of water and the impact of your water footprint, you need to look at how you use water in your home and family life and for your livelihood and wellbeing. Valuing water and asking the question ‘What does water mean to you?’ is the theme for this year’s World Water Day, 22 March.

And who better to talk to us about water than Professor Stuart Bunn, the Director of the Australian Rivers Institute. The Institute has been internationally recognised as the top water security think tank for 2020 due to its high-quality research and strategic efforts to work with industry, decision makers and the broader community to improve the management of our freshwater resources.

In this Q&A learn more about your water footprint, the importance of freshwater and the role of the Australian Rivers Institute in ensuring our sustainable future.

‘We need to think about our water footprint as much as we think about our carbon footprint.’

A headshot photograph of Professor Stuart Bunn looking at the camera.

Image courtesy of Stuart Bunn

What does water mean to you?

I started my career with a fascination for the natural world, studying basic ecology and the weird and wonderful things that live in river systems. But as a freshwater scientist in the early 90s, it became apparent that if we didn’t start solving problems about water supply and delivery along with addressing challenges about water security, then nearly every river in the world was going to be destroyed. This being recognised more broadly in the scientific community has led to a real shift in the way water management is approached.

How we meet the human need for water supply, food supply and energy production in a way that doesn’t negatively impact our freshwater environment is a major challenge for society. Whilst freshwater may represent less than 1% of the land surface, it is highly diverse and accounts for about 40% of fish species in the world, a third of vertebrates and 10% of all described animals. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Living Planet Report 2020 records an 86% decline in the population of freshwater species since the 1970s—we need to turn this around.

Is there an increased need to understand where our water comes from?

Most people in Brisbane turn on the tap without realising the water is coming from the upper catchments. And unlike some parts of Australia, this is not a protected catchment—there is a lot of agricultural activity and a lot of surrounding towns with aging water treatment infrastructure, so the water supply catchment is not fully protected.

As a result, a lot of our catchment-based research has been focused on how to protect and restore catchments so that water quality and quantity can be improved not just for humans, but for all life that is dependent on healthy river systems.

Even our definitions of water security are becoming more encompassing. People think of water security as safe supply for humans, but it is also about protecting freshwater ecosystems and being resilient to water related disasters such as droughts and floods. This is where the Australian Rivers Institute’s strength lies.

How does research at the Australian Rivers Institute underpin policy?

For a long time, our research hasn’t just been about publishing papers and writing reports, but about working very closely in the industry on water resource management issues with Australian and international government agencies. We are the only group in Australia that really tries to tackle these issues from a broader conceptual view—from the top of the catchment all the way down to the coastal zone. We are also unique in that we bring together researchers from a range of disciplines including aquatic ecology, biogeochemistry, geomorphology, soil science, climate and modelling as well as social sciences, resource economics and law.

We are particularly keen to foster partnerships with organisations in the water industry who are interested in what they can do to reduce costs whilst also improving environmental and societal outcomes. As a result, we have increased our efforts to quantify the economic outcomes of catchment and river restoration and protection and are working on developing tools to optimise on-ground investments. It is an attractive proposition—economic benefits with environmental outcomes.

Many of our senior staff seek to influence policy and management through their roles on advisory committees or formal government appointments. I am currently a member of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and have previously served as an Australian National Water Commissioner. Until a couple of years ago, I chaired the Science Committee for Southeast Queensland’s Healthy Land and Water.

How have the UN Sustainable Development Goals informed water research?

Whilst water has its own goal—Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation for all—it has become apparent that many of the other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be met without first achieving the water goal. Wetlands and freshwaters have been included in the ‘terrestrial’ ecosystem goal, SDG 15: Life on Land and this is a significant shift in thinking. One of the past failings was the assumption that if forest and terrestrial environments were protected as they are in national parks, then by default freshwater was also protected. However, all the evidence is to the contrary and this is why more specific actions have been proposed to address the decline in freshwater biodiversity.

Recently we submitted some recommendations to the Convention on Biological Biodiversity around changing and developing more explicit SDG targets for freshwater ecosystems. Setting high-level global targets and goals through the SDGs enables their translation and adoption by cities and companies.

What can we each do to reduce our water footprint?

We need to think about our water footprint as much as we think about our carbon footprint. The real issue is raising awareness around what you do that uses water and what you can do to reduce your impact. The reality is that most water consumed is used in agriculture, so as city dwellers we can think that having a shorter shower is not making a real difference—but every change we make, no matter how small, has a positive impact. If we change behaviour and water consumption in our cities, we may not have to build another dam and therefore reduce future degradation and cost.

We need to start thinking about everything we buy—where our food comes from, where our clothes are made—from both a quality and quantity point of view. We need to consider how our actions are affecting our ecosystems and waterways. For instance, the film River Blue highlights how fashion has driven the increase in consumption of jeans and how the resulting pollution from manufacturing has been outsourced to various parts of the world. The consequence of buying five pairs of cheap jeans is the pollution of rivers in major denim producing cities where the environmental controls are more relaxed.

Ultimately, be informed. There are a lot of things about water and how it moves across the landscape that we do not understand, and in some cases, that are not intuitive. It is part of our job to educate the public but also it is vital that individuals invest time in understanding and lobbying for —or against—government efforts; that they start talking about return on investment and alternatives.

What advice would you give PhD students?

It is important to be flexible and to take on opportunities when they come up. Nowadays, the reality is that only a small proportion of students who come through a PhD program are going to end up in an academic job. It is vital that we have those conversations early and emphasise that it is not the only career pathway. The Institute’s focus is on giving students a broad range of professional skills, expertise and experience. We work closely with government and industry on a whole range of projects so that students can get to know them and their business and as a result, become more employable.

In saying that, if you are enthusiastic and determined enough you won’t have any difficulty finding a job or something of interest to you—and your interests and career will change over time. I started out counting freshwater bugs and now am the Director of a world-leading research institute. I would never have thought I would have ended up in the role—and that’s not a bad thing.


Discover more

Read Professor Stuart Bunn’s research and learn more about our freshwater ecosystem:

Access Griffith Research Online for more research on water ecosystems.