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The Australian National University


We conduct action-oriented research to inform sustainable water management.

Our geographic focus areas include river basins, catchments, communities, and cities across Australia, the Greater Mekong Region, and the Asia-Pacific.

In addition to economic and policy analysis, CWEEP research draws on its associates' expertise across institutional analysis, systems thinking, political science, law, risk science, hydrology, geography, and ecology.

Although CWEEP convenes research across diverse contexts, the centre's work purposefully engages with the waterways of the Canberra and Snowy Mountains regions where the ANU is located. This landscape is a microcosm of key global challenges, such as environment-hydropower-agriculture trade-offs and compound risks to urban water security. It thereby provides a proving ground for policy insights and solutions that can be adapted globally.

By emphasising place-based research and engagement, CWEEP can contribute to caring for the waterways connected to where ANU staff, students and alumni live and work in Canberra, Australia, and throughout the Asia-Pacific.

CWEEP's current work program is focused on 4 research themes.

Realising the human right to water

During a crisis of water scarcity or water quality, leaders and commentators often proclaim that drinking water is a human right. This is not just a turn of phrase: the human right to water has been explicitly defined under the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and was recognised by the UN General Assembly in 2010 as essential to realisation of all human rights.

The human right to water entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have access to an adequate supply of water that is physically accessible, safe and acceptable in terms of quality, affordable, and sufficiently reliable to meet personal and domestic uses. The right also specifies that “individuals and groups should be given full and equal access to information concerning water, water services and the environment, held by public authorities or third parties”.

CWEEP's research under this theme examines barriers to realising the multiple aspects of the human right to water, with a particular emphasis on high-income countries like Australia where major inequities exist in drinking water outcomes. A central activity is the development and analysis of a national database, the Australian Drinking Water Record, under a 5-year project led by the Water Justice Hub on the health, social, and economic costs of poor quality drinking water.

The initial development of the Australian Drinking Water Record has been reported in:

Reforming hydropower governance under climate change and the energy transition

The increasing value of hydropower under the renewable energy transition comes with challenges. Flexible generation and long-term storage are vital to maintain electricity grid security and reliability during this transition. However, hydropower operations impact urban, agricultural, and environmental water uses, and the demand for water services is increasing globally.

The hydropower industry has highlighted that multi-purpose reservoir operations support societal resilience to climate and weather extremes. Water can be supplied to high-value urban uses during droughts, or spare reservoir capacity maintained to absorb floods. However, win-win outcomes are not guaranteed. Delivering water services may result in costs for hydropower companies and energy consumers through foregone electricity generation, storage and revenues. The trade-offs are dynamic and new strategies are needed to ensure flexible operation of hydropower reservoirs.

This research theme examines regulatory and market-based approaches to reforming hydropower governance. With an initial focus on the Snowy Hydro Scheme and the upper Murrumbidgee River, we are using participatory dialogues, hydro-economic modelling, non-market valuation, and other methods to evaluate the costs and benefits of reallocating water across different uses under climate change and the energy transition.

Further insights into the foundation and direction of this work can be accessed below:

Valuing urban waterway restoration

Planners and engineers of the 19th and 20th centuries typically had a narrow view of water's role in the urban environment. Rivers and streams were to be controlled through structures of concrete, iron, brick and steel. Just as water had to be delivered by a centralized network, so did “waste” water and “storm” water need to be diverted into pipes and drains for disposal. Control of waterways enabled vast expansions of cities across floodplains and coastal areas.

Today, urban water management is taking a different trajectory. Naturalisation and restoration of waterways and catchments has become conventional practice. Surface run-off is being managed as a resource. Wetlands, rain gardens, and other natural features are integrated into refurbished storm water systems. Taxpayers demand green-blue spaces in cities, and urban biodiversity is valued. Organisations that were once at the vanguard of concreting urban waterways, such as the US Army Corps of Engineers and the World Bank, now advocate for nature-based solutions to floods, extreme heat, water insecurity, and biodiversity loss.

CWEEP's research under this theme addresses the challenges of valuing the multiple, long-term, and often uncertain benefits of urban waterway restoration projects. The objective is a practical one: to demonstrate methods and tools that support finance and funding of real-world projects.

In the Sullivan's Creek catchment upstream of the ANU, CWEEP researchers are using real estate price data to estimate the property tax revenues from government investments in waterway restoration. A complementary research stream is testing audiovisual methods to communicate changes in environmental values in focus groups and surveys. The combination of art, science and economics underpinning these experiential non-market valuation methods are demonstrated in this collaboration between visual artist Sammy Hawker and CWEEP Co-Director Paul Wyrwoll:

  • Water Memory, exhibited at the National Museum of Australia, November 2022

Innovations in pricing, markets and finance

Economics is traditionally defined as the allocation of scarce resources to satisfy unlimited needs and wants. Pricing and markets are used around the world to allocate water across competing uses and users. Water infrastructure is capital intensive, with high up-front costs and long pay back periods. Financing mechanisms are often necessary to build new water supply infrastructure, whilst the pricing of water services enables recovery of capital and operating costs.

Climate change, population growth, pollution, and land-use change are contributing to escalating risks of water scarcity. In response, urban water service providers are using new tools, such as dynamic pricing and individualised water tariffs. New markets are emerging for watershed protection, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. Advanced water markets like those in the Murray-Darling Basin are evolving. Innovative forms of sustainable finance, such as environmental impact bonds, are being used to invest in water infrastructure.

This cross-cutting research theme examines the application of new models for water pricing, markets and finance across the three other CWEEP research focus areas, as well as the broader range of water challenges facing policy-makers across the world.

Further insights into the foundation and direction of this research theme can be found in:

Updated:  27 September 2023/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement /Page Contact:  CAP Web Team