Water Champion

Water Champions initiate or implement water reforms in their chosen field, and are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries.

Eva Abal: Bringing Scientists and Managers Together for Healthy Waterways
April 2010

By Cezar Tigno Web Writer ABOUT THE CHAMPION
Eva Abal is the Science Director of Australia's South East Queensland Healthy Waterways Partnership (SEQHWP). She manages the Partnership's research towards and scientific monitoring of waterways ecosystem health, including developing strategic research plans, and disseminating information to stakeholders. She is also Chief Scientist of the Brisbane-based International WaterCentre, an SEQHWP partner and the Asia-Pacific Water Forum's knowledge hub for healthy rivers and aquatic ecosystems. The Healthy Waterways Partnership provides a unique integrated approach to water quality management, whereby scientific research, community participation, and policy/strategy development are done in parallel with each other. This collaborative effort has resulted in a water quality management strategy that integrates the community and ecological values of the waterways. Composed of Queensland State Government, 11 South East Queensland local governments, 6 industries, and community-based groups, the Partnership's vision is for its waterways and catchments to become healthy ecosystems by 2020, able to support the livelihoods and lifestyles of people in Queensland. A major part of Eva's work in the Partnership involves facilitating the development of annual report cards that present "A" to "F" health ratings of Queensland's waterways, providing a succinct snapshot of ecosystem health. The health ratings aim to raise awareness of the issues affecting waterways and to identify required actions to improve them. The report card itself is a product of a large team of experts from government, academe, industry, and communities. Both a scientist and an advocate, Eva has an MS degree in Marine Biology from the University of San Carlos in Cebu City, Philippines and a Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, where she is also Associate Professor with the Office of the Vice Chancellor. Eva is also Chief Scientific Officer of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF), which makes her also Secretary to the International Science Advisory Committee of the GBRF. Her passion is in the synthesis and effective communication of scientific information, making science relevant and useful to water managers, policymakers, and communities alike.

What for you is a healthy river? How are you involved in the cleanup and upkeep of Queensland's waterways? Simply, a healthy aquatic ecosystem is one that is stable and sustainable, maintaining its physical complexity, biodiversity, and resilience to stress. A healthy waterway has the ability to provide ecosystem services that promote good water quality, wildlife, and recreation. Moreover, it upholds people's and communities' environmental, cultural, economic, and social values. I'm not physically involved in on-the-ground river cleanup activities. As a scientist, my task is to provide easy-to-use tools and practical knowledge for effective management actions. One of these tools is a healthy waterways report card, produced annually by the Healthy Waterways Partnership under its hallmark Ecosystem Health Monitoring Program, which provides an objective assessment of the health of waterways throughout Queensland. How does the program monitor and assess waterways? The Ecosystem Health Monitoring Program is one of the most comprehensive marine, estuarine and freshwater monitoring programs in Australia. It was initiated fully in 2000, and after a two-year design and pilot phase, now delivers an assessment of the ambient ecosystem health

(or pulse) for each of South East Queensland's 19 major catchments, 18 river estuaries, and Moreton Bay, highlighting whether the health of the waterways is getting better or worse. Over 50 field, laboratory, and technical experts from the Queensland Government, universities and Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) are involved in the program's implementation. The Queensland Department of Environment and Natural Resource Management (DERM) takes the lead in data collection. The data collected by the team are inputted into the production of the annual Ecosystem Health Report Card. The program has an over-all Coordinator, who sits in the Partnership's Secretariat, in the Science and Monitoring Program which I look after. There are also an Estuarine/Marine Monitoring Coordinator, a Freshwater Monitoring Coordinator, and an Event Monitoring Coordinator. How is a river's health measured? The Ecosystem Health Monitoring Program monitors 135 freshwater sites, sampled twice a year during spring and autumn, and 254 estuarine/marine sites sampled monthly. It also has an Event Monitoring Program that measures the amount of nutrients and sediments entering the waterways from the catchments during rainfall events. These components allow us to determine "sustainable loads," the amount of pollutants that waterways can assimilate without getting degraded.

Using a variety of physico-chemical and biological indicators, the program assesses the waterways' response to both natural pressures and human activities. Local governments have invested significantly to repair damage to our waterways, including upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, stormwater management, and restoration of riparian areas. The Program helps evaluate the effectiveness of these and other investments and management strategies, and also helps to identify emerging issues that may require intervention. To achieve this, the program is embedded into the Partnership's adaptive management framework that links monitoring to management. This approach allows management bodies to readily evaluate and communicate the ecosystem and community benefits resulting from the investment in environmental protection/restoration, and provides both managers and researchers with the feedback required to better target investments in the management of Queensland's catchments and waterways. The program also emphasizes integrating current scientific understanding of the waterways and community-derived environmental values (e.g. swimming, fishing, boating, protection of aquatic habitats, etc.). Relevant and achievable water quality objectives, reflecting the environmental values and uses which the community attributes to our waterways, have been crucial. What is the report card's role in cleaning up rivers? The annual report card provides a timely reminder to local and state governments and the broader community to keep track of the health of our waterways. It is a year's worth of data synthesized to generate the annual grades and serves as an audit mechanism and communication tool for management actions to protect South East Queensland's catchments and Moreton Bay. In recent years, local governments have invested some Au$400 million on sewage treatment plant upgrades alone, and approximately Au$4.5 million has been invested by local governments on the restoration of riparian areas. The report card's ratings are confidential and embargoed until the official launch every October. The launch itself is quite a ceremony, with four other simultaneous launches in different parts of the catchment. For each launch, a scientist representing the Program Team hands over the report card to the mayor of the local government which hosts the launch. At the central launch, both the Minister for DERM and the Lord Mayor of Brisbane launch the report card and hand it ceremoniously to the general public. The launches are most often held along the river or waterway and receive very good media coverage from local and national newspapers, radio, and TV. What is your specific role in the development of the report card? I convene the Healthy Waterways Partnership's Scientific Expert Panel to ensure that the report card is produced in a very rigorous manner.

What challenges do you face in developing the report card? How do you hurdle them? The big challenge is discussing the implications of report card results with managers and other people who can make a difference. This requires understanding on what management intervention is required to improve or maintain a report card grade. The "debriefing process" is what results into action. For me, this, in its own right, is a full-time job. On a practical aspect, briefing local officials on a bad report card grade also comes with a challenge, as one becomes the bearer of bad news. I ensure that I not only have the detailed information backing up the grades, but also some options for solutions to improve the grade. The report card is also accompanied by a 100-page and web-based technical report which provides more detailed information for managers. We also hold one-on-one and direct meetings with our stakeholders to discuss implications of report card grades. As a scientist and science communicator, what insights can you share on advocating healthy rivers in the Asia-Pacific region? The report card, when developed rigorously and reflects the community values, is a very powerful communication tool. It is a good leverage to management commitments to protect and restore waterways. Combined with direct discussions among stakeholders, it can be used to reflect not only the health of waterways, but also indicate the extent of stewardship needed by our waterways and catchments. Its principles, process, communication strength, and leveraging power can be adopted easily in the Asia–Pacific region. The entire production of the report card, from data gathering to its launching briefings and debriefings, is both a scientific and political process. Scientific, in the sense that the report card reflects the significant amount of data gathered in the past year and analyzed rigorously to provide an independent assessment of the health of waterways. It is also political, as the report card is a powerful tool to engage politicians who are in the position of making decisions towards investments to improve the health of our waterways and catchments. Being part of the production is a very satisfying and humbling process for me. It is a privilege to be working in the midst of scientific and political champions. For me, the report card is indeed a "voice" for our waterways. As soon as the draft grades are calculated, I facilitate the independent review and endorsement of the grades by the panel. From this, I also collate the key messages in the year's report card. The key message in the 2009 Report Card, for instance, was "A Wake Up Call for SEQ's Waterways," reflecting the significant decline in report card ratings in Moreton Bay due to the sediment- and nutrientladen loads coming from the catchments; South East Queensland received the most rainfall in 2009 in the past ten years. I also conduct important and confidential briefings and debriefings with various stakeholders to educate them on the report card's details and to discuss their implications in terms management actions.

_______________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in April 2010: http://www.adb.org/Water/Champions/2010/eva-abal.asp. The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADB’s developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.