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Balancing the needs of water for humans and nature - the fundamental question

Professor Stuart Bunn, Director of the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University, IWC researcher, and recent winner of the Griffith University Vice-Chancellor's Research Leadership Award, speaks about the driving force behind his work.
Balancing the needs of water for humans and nature - the fundamental question

Professor Stuart Bunn, Director of Griffith University's Australian Rivers Institute and IWC researcher

How do we achieve improved environmental outcomes and yet still meet the basic human needs for water as well? For the past 30 years this question has driven the work of Professor Bunn.

“I think the key driver for me is the fundamental global challenge of how do we balance the needs of water for both humans and nature,” he says.

“Everywhere you hear that topic discussed it’s always seen as a competition – that the environment is always competing with humans for water. Most of the things humans do in our catchments ultimately affect fresh water ecosystems through changes in the quantity and quality of water. But these are the same things that ultimately affect our own water security.”

Professor Bunn began working on the ecology of streams and rivers nearly 30 years ago, and has since been involved in water management projects around the world. For 20 years he has been at Griffith University, and is now Director of its world-renowned Australian Rivers Institute.

“We’ve done quite a bit of research at both regional and global scales looking at the indicators of river health and published some of that work last year,” he says. “We are very keen to continue this work with our international colleagues to further explore the drivers of river health on a global scale, and how patterns of threat to humans and biodiversity will change in the face of a changing climate.”

According to Professor Bunn, these innovative approaches for developing indicators and report cards on river ecosystem health have been largely developed here in Australia, enabling him to share his knowledge on projects in regions such as China, where the raid industrialisation is placing strain on the nation’s water resources.

“China is coming to the realisation that it needs to do much more about protecting the environment and is introducing concepts about how to manage rivers system to improve their health,” he says. “One particular project that we’ve been doing in China is really underpinned by the principles and methodologies that we’ve developed in Australia.”

These principles and methodologies begin in the classroom, another passion of Professor Bunn’s.  “I really enjoy getting up and interacting with groups of students, and I think that’s one of the fun things about doing science. I have postgraduate students working on a range of topics from basic freshwater ecology to more applied projects on water quality and river health in China and integrated water resource management in Vietnam. I’ve also got a student studying terrestrial indicators of stream health – how do you measure this in ephemeral stream systems when the water is all gone?”

For too many people around the world however, ‘most of the clean water is gone’, making daily life for millions a struggle. “It’s really about understanding that fundamental question,” Professor Bunn says. “How do we balance the needs of water for both humans and the environment?

“And that has been a real passion for me.”


Professor Bunn recently won the Griffith University Vice-Chancellor's Research Leadership Award (announced 12th May -




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