RiverSymposium Rocks

6 November 2019

By Kate Harriden (PhD student)

From 20-24 October, delegates from across the world were in Brisbane for the bi-annual RiverSymposium. I’ve been wanting to attend this conference for many years and was absolutely thrilled that my work was accepted for presentation. The event did not disappoint, as indicated by the 24 pages of notes I took.

The high-quality keynote speakers, including Dr Marcella D’Souza, Director of the WOTR Centre for Resilience Studies (India) and Prof. Peter Batey from the Mersey Rivers Trust in the UK were inspirational.

But it was Mara Bun, President of the Australian Conservation Foundation whose words most resonated with my approach to research. She called for researchers to “plan less and experiment more” because “we don’t have the time to waste”.

Her six steps to effectively adopt this approach are:

  • define your purpose; be inclusive and think of beneficiaries
  • list your assumptions; articulate them clearly
  • identify the most critical, highest risk, assumption
  • design and run experiments (using the KISS principle); collect data and record everything
  • review results and decide the next step
  • pivot as required.

It was a joy to encounter another speaker who also shared this ‘plan less; experiment more’ approach in the session at which I presented (Rivers by Design). We are now email buddies.

As is always the way at conferences, I was scheduled to speak in a session that clashed with one I really wanted to attend – Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Heritage. Nonetheless, I can always say I spoke at the same time as Assoc. Prof Linda Te Aho (even if we didn’t share a platform). I did, however, get to meet the wiradjuri speaker from that session on the Aboriginal culture study tour to minjerribah/Stradbroke Island (us wiradjuri, we’re everywhere).

Ironically, given I’m technically an early career researcher, I was asked to mentor one of the members of the well-developed Emerging Water Professional Program in how to chair a conference session. It was a novel experience for Milan Paudel, from Nepal’s Ministry of Energy, Water Resources, and Irrigation. Not only did I dispense with the standard reading of the conventional speaker biographies, opting instead to tell the audience what myths about their work/industry the speaker wanted busted, but we did some Pilates too. It was the last session of the day – everyone needed to be roused from their post-afternoon tea stupor. And then we had a technical hiccup, forcing a quick change in speaking order to allow the on-the-ball IT team to sort it out. Milan had quite the introduction to chairing a session at a large international conference. He handled it with aplomb.

In spite of the diverse range of excellent presentations I attended, it was one moment, on the study tour mentioned earlier, that most starkly highlighted the effects that climate change is bringing to the water cycle.

We went to Brown Lake, a lake that the local quandamooka mob have used as a family site for millennia. My own family has also splashed around here many times. Not only do I remember a much browner lake, but I remember a much larger lake.

My memories were confirmed by Josh Walker and his son – the lake, a perched water table, has receded due to a lack of rain. This means that the leaves of the tea trees formerly fringing the lake’s edge can now no longer stain the water. This radical change is clearly shown by the photo. The tree in the foreground was once a jumping point into the lake for Josh’s kids. And the kids of my father.

Mind you, the sadness of this reality was temporarily tempered by a koala coming down a tree, to hear our host tell the koala creation story (I have video proof).

May we all plan less and experiment more, because if the IPCC is correct there is not time to waste.