PhD Scholar wins water award - but this one is a win for changing perceptions

5 March 2021

Kate Harriden isn’t one to mince words.

“Even though I’d love to get rid of every single piece of concrete in storm water channels, and get rid of the whole idea of storm water as it’s a construct - that’s not going to happen anytime soon. This is a way of getting the outcomes I want, to treat water as flows through the system with vegetation, rather than just at the end.”

A PhD researcher at the Fenner School of Environment & Society at the Australian National University, Kate is looking at how natural processes can be used to improve how water is managed in urban areas. As a Wiradjuri woman, she is using Indigenous science perspectives in her work, looking at urban water as part of a living system, not just something to engineered out and taken away.

“Storm water is not waste water, it’s wasted water. The fact that just because a certain body of water hits concrete it’s now classed as waste is entirely constructed.

“I want to see a fundamental shift in how we engage in thinking about the environment, so it’s not just seen in a narrow, limited way. In modern scientific academia, human beings are often not seen as part of the environmental system – we sit above it, we manipulate it, we control it. That’s not how Indigenous science looks at things,” she said.

Kate’s way of looking at these issues may be starting to make an impact. In February this year she was awarded ACT Water Student of the Year (2020) award from the ACT branch of the Australian Water Association (AWA). 

“To put this in context, the Australian Water Association is a bit like the AMA (Australian Medical Association) of the water sector, the peak organization for urban water policy and water-related engineers,” Harriden said.

She says that for an organization that is traditionally quite conservative in its understanding of environmental systems – and how they are seen through an extractive economic framework - winning this award is huge sign that things are changing. Originally Harriden wasn’t even going to enter this year’s competition, having come third (out of three) for any prizes in previous years with a much frostier reception when presenting her ideas to the sector.

“This year was the first year where I was not the only person who wasn’t just focusing on pumps and pipes. I was speaking to someone on the night of the event who turned out to be on the judging panel, saying I might be surprised when I told him my work doesn’t really fit into the sector,” she said.

“I of course didn’t have anything prepared, so I just talked a bit about my work and said ‘thanks for becoming more progressive!’”

“I’m confident that it wasn’t actually my work per say [that won], but that it’s the sector is realizing how far behind it’s been on these issues. That’s what the award means to me, it suggests we’re moving in a good direction – this is the Associations’ award.”