Testing the waters

Testing the waters

Clean water is essential for all life on our planet, but global water issues have never been so prominent, and the demand for solutions never so high. Enter the Global Water Institute. In this fascinating Q&A inaugural Director Professor Nicholas Schofield explains why UNSW’s newest initiative is so important. 

What is the UNSW Global Water Institute and why has it been established?

The University has always had a lot of expertise in water, but until now it’s been siloed in different groups. One of the driving concepts behind the Global Water Institute has been to forge stronger connections between the water-related research expertise at UNSW so we can provide an integrated offering to solve the more complex issues that cut across a range of sectors and disciplines. So far, we have a membership of 400 researchers, professional staff and PhD students from right across UNSW, spanning seven faculties and 13 specialist centres, so it truly is a multi-disciplinary venture!

What can the Institute offer potential industry partners?

The Institute has come to fruition at a most important time in human history where water issues are foremost on the minds of politicians, economists, industries, communities and within the science community. We’re very keen to listen and help identify the priorities of our clients, both nationally and internationally. We also want to bring innovations and new ideas into the marketplace.Professor Nicholas Schofield, Director, Global Water Institute

What are the main themes you’re seeing on a global level in water and water related fields?

In 2015, water was identified in the World Economic Forum as the number one global risk in terms of impact. In part that’s caused by increasing water scarcity in a number of regions, which creates mass migration, and the foundations for wars, as we’re seeing in the Middle East at the moment.

For me, one of the most alarming things is the rate of biodiversity loss across the planet, particularly aquatic species which are being lost at a faster rate than any other group. This is exacerbated by climate change, the impacts of which are felt in the water sector more strongly than any other sector, with flow-on human impacts through severe droughts and storms, sea level rise, floods and coastal erosion. Whilst the poorest are the most vulnerable, the costs to advanced countries will be massive too.

We’re also seeing society move to mitigate climate change with renewable energy - in the water sphere through hydropower. But the rapid escalation of hydro-power dams could have the unfortunate consequence of disrupting rivers and aquatic life, and in some cases communities dependent on the rivers. We face a major dilemma in this regard around hydropower.

Population growth, with an extra 80 million people to feed on the planet each year, is placing higher demand on water via increased irrigated agricultural production. There continues to be major public health issues in supplying fresh clean water to the 660 million people who are still without safe water, and the 2.3 billion people (or one in three) without a toilet.

There is also a suite of issues related to education and capacity building in many countries that have very little understanding of the complexities of water management in their own localities, let alone the broader transboundary and global contexts. 

So will the Global Water Institute be able to address some of these issues?

I think we’re well-positioned to address most of those issues in various ways and to different degrees, and we want to do that through partnerships and collaborations with other players such as the United Nations, International Development Banks and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I think it’s important for us to become part of the international system that’s already working hard to solve these problems.

You’re bringing considerable experience to your new role. What project have you been most proud of in your career to date?

I worked for a number of years with the cotton industry in Australia on a major problem it was facing with pesticide use resulting in fish kills in rivers. This created a lot of negative publicity for the industry, almost to the point of threatening its existence. I established a large research program to examine the problems and develop some solutions.

Over the first three years we gained a clear understanding of the fundamental mechanisms by which pesticides travel through the environment, from their point of application, and were able to design a completely new set of management practices that controlled all aspects of pesticide application and use. 

One of the fascinating things about water is that it runs across so many sectors, whether it’s biodiversity, climate change, food production, renewable energy, public health or international development.

Professor Nicholas Schofield, Director, Global Water Institute

Over the following five years, in what has become one of the great success stories in applied science in Australia, we managed to completely remove the offending chemicals from the river environment. Even now, 14-15 years afterwards, the chemicals haven’t reappeared. This is a great example of scientists from universities, CSIRO and government, working effectively with an industry and the community, to control a problem and give a brighter future to both the industry and the environment.

Why does water interest you particularly?

I think one of the fascinating things about water is that it runs across so many sectors, whether it’s biodiversity, climate change, food production, renewable energy, public health or international development. Water clearly is essential for life, but it underpins so many parts of the economy, so many parts of humanity, and it has an important role in spiritual and cultural contexts too.

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