Winning and Twinning
Rivers around the world are in trouble. They are degrading faster than terrestrial and marine systems, with catastrophic consequences for both wildlife and the people who depend on them. In Australia, we are all too familiar with such degradation, writ large across the Murray-Darling Basin, which is costing Australian taxpayers more than $12 billion to rectify.
In stark contrast to the Murray-Darling is Australia’s Lake Eyre Basin. Covering a sixth of the continent, the Basin’s caretakers have engendered a vastly different and highly successful approach to its management. Most recently, in 2015, this was internationally recognised when the Lake Eyre Basin Partnership won the prestigious International Riverprize from the International River Foundation (IRF).
In the months since, Professor Richard Kingsford, Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science - who helped coordinate the winning submission - has worked hard on a project to ‘twin’ the Lake Eyre Basin with the Okavango River Basin in Africa.
What is your connection to the Lake Eyre Basin Partnership?
I have been involved in the Lake Eyre Basin and its management since the early 1990s. I’ve served various terms on the Lake Eyre Basin Scientific Advisory Panel, and also continue to do research relevant to the Basin’s sustainability.
The amazing thing about the Lake Eyre Basin Partnership is that it has been able to oversee the sustainable management of the basin without succumbing to the development pressures that are occurring in other places across the globe. The Lake Eyre Basin supplies a booming tourism industry, has spectacular ecology, and supports landholders who rely on the flooding of the Basin rivers for their livelihood.
How have the different stakeholder groups been able to work together so successfully?
Many of the people involved have worked together for a long time and have built very strong relationships of trust. What began, 20-odd years ago, as conflict and tension arising from power imbalance and threatened livelihoods, grew into a public drive for change and protection of this magnificent river basin.
By building a cohesive network of community, river people, scientists, traditional owners, industry and government, the Partnership has effectively protected the natural flows of the Basin’s rivers from water resource development, mining, pollution and other threats.
When the landmark Lake Eyre Basin Intergovernmental Agreement was struck by state, territory and federal governments in 2000, jurisdictional borders seemed to dissolve as people embraced the catchment framework of ecological and social dimensions advocated by grass-roots leadership.
What is the IRF’s Twinning Program?
The Twinning Program funds and supports a mentoring partnership between the winner of the International Riverprize and another river organisation, to help both partners achieve their river restoration goals.
After winning the 2015 Riverprize, we twinned with the Okavango River Basin which flows from Angola through Namibia and into Botswana. It’s similar to the Lake Eyre Basin in terms of being one of the great free-flowing rivers of the world and having spectacular environmental and cultural values.
What does it involve?
We’ve got senior delegates from Angola, Namibia and Botswana coming to Australia in July 2016 to visit the Lake Eyre Basin and talk about their experience at a symposium in Brisbane (which is part of the Society for Conservation Biology (Oceania) Congress). The idea is to develop an ongoing collaborative relationship to discuss the parallels and commonalities, the differences, and the opportunities that might exist in managing big river basins.
What are your own research interests?
I work primarily on freshwater ecosystems or wetlands and the rivers that supply them. I’m interested in the impacts of water resource development on these systems, and the basic ecology of what drives waterbirds, frogs, fish and vegetation in these different dependent systems. I’m also interested in thinking about how that intercepts with broad scale management of the rivers from a social, economic and political point of view.
Through my research I have seen first-hand that fish, vegetation, waterbirds and hydrology indicators in the Lake Eyre Basin all continue to point in the direction of healthy ecosystems. There is now considerable optimism that the basin will be able to sustain its exceptional environmental values, rich Aboriginal history, and support thriving industries and communities well into the future.