Our shared liquid legacy: The new Australia India Water Centre

It is hard to conceptualise that we are running out of water. The resource which we have relied on to supply our crops, to play a vital role in every single industry, and to reduce the spread of a deadly pandemic through handwashing, is finite. 

In 2019, we saw over a million fish die in the Murray-Darling Basin over the course of 2 months. Drought and mismanagement of river systems, where unsustainable amounts of water were allocated to agricultural use, have been attributed as key causes of the tragedy. 

Across the Pacific in our South Asian neighbours, we are seeing similar problems. The Indian government’s thinktank, NITI Aayog, revealed in a 2018 report that 600 million people in the country face high to extreme water stress. A year later, at the same time as mass fish deaths of the Murray-Darling, India’s southern city Chennai had it’s reserves of water drop to 0.1% of capacity. Five million people found themselves unable to access their most basic necessity for the hottest summer months. 

Sadly, this image of water scarcity is almost certainly a huge part of our future, as our populations increase, and our industries become more water intensive. Both Australia and India share agriculture as their most water intensive industry, with 80-90% of accessible freshwater being used to supply each nation's food bowls. Not all of this usage is sustainable, with surface irrigation and evaporation playing a large role in inefficiency.

To target the concerns of water security and meet our domestic, agricultural, and environmental needs, both countries joined hands in November 2020 to virtually inaugurate the Australia India Water Centre (AIWC), a breakthrough initiative led by Western Sydney University (WSU) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati.

The centre brings together over 21 government, NGO, and university partners to establish a platform for knowledge exchange and mutual project work, the first of its kind since our respective national governments first started collaborating on water policy in 2009. This comprehensive strategic partnership focuses on deepening policy and technical cooperation to improve water management and sustainable economic development.

So why Australia and India? These two countries share vastly different populations and lifestyles, so collaborating on the 21st centuries ‘liquid gold’ may seem unintuitive. However, both nations face natural extremes of floods and droughts, rapidly accelerating urbanisation, and the impact of anthropogenic climate change on our access to the world’s most essential resource. 

Both countries are also signatories to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – and goal number six states we must ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’. It is the aim of the signatories to reach these goals by 2030, and with poor access to water in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities of both nations, it is high time for big action. 

The AIWC is aiming to create that action in three ways: focusing on transdisciplinary and people-first solutions through workshops and webinars, the development of a ‘one-stop-shop’ resource for experts and policy makers, and the establishment of a joint master’s level program that allows students to travel to the partner country and learn hands-on about the issues they are hoping to solve. 

Prof Basant Maheshwari of WSU is a key member of the AIWC’s team. He has over 15 years of experience in the field of water management. When we spoke about the centre, he was optimistic about it’s future.

“The program is about bilateral relations. Both Australian and Indian sides must contribute and learn from each other in complementary fashion to make the program a success”.

From the Australian side, policy makers have had extensive experience with drought management. From 1997 to 2009, we experienced the worst drought in the country’s recorded history. Nationwide programs, focused on both behaviour change and policies to control water usage in industry, saw domestic water use nearly halved. If we wind our minds back to the early 2000s, four-minute shower timers, for instance, were the standard in our bathrooms. 

From the Indian side, institutes, and universities have worked on the grass roots level with farmers and villagers to understand the microeconomics and decisions that shape the country’s water usage landscape. Having acted as the lead on a groundwater project in India called MARVI (Managing Groundwater Use and Aquifer Recharge through Village-level Intervention), Prof Maheshwari says the project has allowed farmers to stay better informed and has built their capacity to better irrigate crops.

 

The MARVI program focused on citizen science and incorporated local farmers to monitor and manage groundwater levels in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. 

“The focus on people, not just science, was at the heart,” Prof Maheshwari emphasized.

This process has shown results. Whilst not directly applicable to Australia’s highly mechanised agricultural industry, the insights into capacity building are incredibly valuable.

This centre is a concrete and critical step taken after Prime Ministers Modi and Morrison signed a water resources management MoU in June 2020. Institute and university driven agile research and cooperation is going to allow the AIWC to generate, trade, and build on valuable knowledge to address the growing need for better water management. 

The centre is making its first moves already, with funding for its first project having been secured from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia. As we move ever closer to water demand peaks for major cities across the globe, it is initiatives such as these that will bring positive change to livelihoods. 


Tanaya Joshi is a regular science and culture writer at SAARI. She is a Clinical Research Assistant at the Monash Clinical Research / Metro Pain Group. You can connect with her via LinkedIn

All images for this piece were created by photographer and illustrator Iain Soumitri, on Instagram at @soumitristudio

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