Masters Graduate Yiwen Chen Solves Murray-Darling Mystery

When Fenner Masters graduate Yiwen Chen led a review of irrigation in the Murray Darling with Prof. Jamie Pittock, Dr. Matthew Colloff and Dr Anna Lukasiewicz, she didn’t expect her findings to become a national news headline.

Last week, Chen’s discovery that the Murray-Darling floodplains had not received the majority of environmental water redirected from irrigators under the Federal Government’s $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan, hit national newspapers, and ABC news and TV.

Specifically, Chen found that despite wetlands in the Murray Darling Basin being targeted for protection and regeneration for the last five years, of nearly 3 million hectares of wetlands in the Basin they could deliberately water, 141,000 ha was inundated over 5 years (28,000 ha/yr on average), leaving vital ecosystems nearing collapse. The cause? Private land blocking links between rivers and floodplains.

Yiwen made the finding while working with her supervisors Prof. Pittock, Dr. Matthew Colloff  and Dr Anna Lukasiewicz  in her Masters degree at Fenner, but her journey to studying wetlands has been one of progressive realisations. Her first decision to  study the environment was in secondary school, after reading a newspaper story about polar bears starving in the Arctic. Shocked, she decided to dedicate her studies to doing something about the state of the environment. 


Originally from Anhui Province (安徽), near Shanghai in China, Yiwen arrived in Canberra in 2015, where she attended ANU College, and went on to complete her Undergraduate and Master degree at The Fenner School of Environment & Society. 

‘Initially I thought I’d do something like marine science, but when I came here, I found that it might be more interesting to do forestry-related work.”

In the first year of her Master of Forestry (Advanced) Yiwen was asked to choose her supervisors, and her field of interest to specialise in. At first she wasn’t sure, but on a field trip to Macquarie Marshes her interest became clear.

“I saw the beautiful wetland, with beautiful birds. And I thought, ‘Well, I want to protect the wetland, the beautiful wetland.’ I knew Jamie was doing wetland conservation and water management, and I contacted him. He gave me some suggestions of areas he was looking at, and he asked for my opinion, and I did a literature review based on his suggestions. I felt really interested in that area, so I continued on this path of study.”


So how did Chen go from wanting to protect the wetlands, to her findings about $13 billion and the Murray-Darling Basin? The process was substantial, Chen says, and her experience offers valuable insight into researcher-life.

“Always set out your research proposal, find out: what are the research objectives? You should think about what kind of methods you want to use to find solutions or solve the problem you’re looking at. My supervisors and I decided to use a mixed method, which is qualitative and quantitative analysis.”

Then, Chen began to tirelessly investigate and read.

“I searched on the State website and relevant institute websites, to see if they had any reports published related to what I was looking for. When I was unable to directly obtain specific data from governments, I started looking through the massive pile of raw data published in their public reports.”

Chen began to think about how to present the information in a cohesive way, which led to her all-important discovery.

“I think the very first important findings came from an idea I was thinking, where it might be good if I can draw a consistent map, year to year, to show what areas had been watered, and what areas hadn’t. After I drew that picture, I found, ‘Wow, that is more than we expected!’ So we started digging more, and that’s how we found it.”


Now, her research is doing exactly what she had intended: protecting the wetland. 

In its run on ABC Regional News, Yiwen’s findings prompted a response from irrigators, and a commitment to action from the national body governing irrigation commitments. 

“What is interesting is the very positive comments in response from the head of the National Irrigators’ Council. This is unprecedented for environmental research. This really demonstrates how much this research is a catalyst for change.” Chen’s supervisor Prof. Jamie Pittock said.

Chen still feels the news-attention is unreal. 

“I didn’t expect it! I feel really happy to see that my paper can be influential for others. I think it’s kind-of inspiration for me to continue study in the future.”

To students who might be considering taking up Environmental research, Yiwen Chen has a resonant, practical message:

“Always believe in yourself. I mean, I never thought I could achieve this, but I started from small pieces, and kept working and learning, and never gave up. I don’t really know much about how to inspire others, but from my personal view, you need to try your best, and just do all the things you need to do. I think you need to be curious about the things you learn. When you source some data or information, you cannot just see the information and accept it. You need to ask why it exists, and how it exists, and that’s how you can keep learning and finding new things.”

“As I keep learning in this field, I feel like this is what I want, and this is what I’m looking for, and this is what I’m interested in.”


You can find news coverage of Yiwen Chen’s research here and here, and read a more-detailed brief here.

Updated:  28 January 2021/Responsible Officer:  Director, Fenner School/Page Contact:  Webmaster, Fenner School