Quote of the month

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability.”

— Martin Luther King


Welcome to our February 2015 newsletter: Getting out in the field

We find that getting out of the office now and again is not just a great way to shake up our routines—it’s an opportunity to see in action some of the science we write about every day and to defog some of the abstract concepts.

Being confronted with the evidence, the impact and, most of all, the people on the ground can boost our understanding and flare our passion in a way that reading about it never can.


As always, we’d love your feedback via Facebook, Twitter or email.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam:

Water is life

By Alison Binney

Last month I needed plumbing works at home due to a concealed water leak. Somewhere between the main supply line and my house—a short 5-metre stretch—water had been draining away at roughly 60 litres an hour for about 30 days.

I was surprised at how distraught I was at the thought of 60 litres an hour. Not because of the cost, but because of what I’d seen last year while travelling through Uganda and Timor-Leste.

I had taken a photo of that 60 litres being carried by children.

Ugandan children carrying water home
Photo: Alison Binney

Every day, from dawn until dusk, you can see children in developing countries carting water on foot or on pushbike.
They lug home loaded containers—mostly 10- or 20-litre plastic jerry cans—from the nearest water supply, which can be more than 5 kilometres away.

Sometimes the supply is a rudimentary waterway, sometimes a shared groundwater pump funded by a foreign aid agency.

Ugandan children transporting water home
Photo: Alison Binney

In developed countries, we generally appreciate the need to conserve water. Before Australia’s Millennium drought, Southeast Queenslanders consumed 330 litres per person per day. During the drought we learned to get by on 124 litres per person per day [PDF].

But how would we fare without access to water, without a society that connects waterlines to our dispersed communities?

Almost 40% of Uganda’s total population and Timor-Leste’s rural population lacks access to water.

The plumber turned off my water to fix the leak. Every time I went to use a tap, I could see kids on bikes or along roadsides carrying their muddied jerry cans. It also made me realise how many little things we use water for, like wiping down the kitchen bench.

These images played on my mind recently while I was creating content for On Target for People and Planet, a publication about sustainable development goals, published by the International Water Management Institute.

Having seen these kids with my own eyes certainly made me appreciate what access to water really means and why we need relevant sustainable development goals.


Small nation inspiration

By Robbie Mitchell

Rising sea levels and more severe cyclones are well published impacts of climate change. I don’t live right on the coast or in northern Australia, so I was never really concerned about this until I visited two Pacific Island nations in 2013.

Alison and I travelled to the Solomon Islands and the Cook Islands to produce a series of case studies about evidence-based climate change decision-making in the Pacific and Southeast Asia region.

In the Roviana region in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands, we saw first-hand how shorelines have receded by more than a metre on some islands over the past 20 years (a culmination of sea-level rise and tectonic movement). Further rises will submerge some habitable islands.

Villagers are building sea walls, moving their houses further back from the water’s edge  or relocating their villages completely as a result of these rises.

In the Cook Islands, the main concern people face is more intense cyclones.

We watched footage taken during and after five separate cyclones, which hit Avarua over five consecutive weeks in 2005, and saw first-hand the rebuilt ports, roads and airports that had been flooded or destroyed.

It made us aware how at risk this sea-side community was, particularly the people living inland in areas already below sea level. During the storms, their low-lying houses were almost completely under water from storm surges, which also gouged away at the international airport.

What inspired me was the resilience and positive attitude that these small nations have towards climate change. They recognise that the climate is changing and that they need to manage the risks and adapt.

Not only this, they are committed to reducing their impact on the climate by becoming carbon neutral, setting an example for the rest of the world.

The Cook Islands aims to generate all their electricity from renewables by 2020 and have removed import duty and tax on solar water heaters, which have become standard in most new housing and commercial buildings.

Having recently bought a house, I’m looking to follow in the steps of the Cook Islands and do my part by saving for solar panels and water tanks.


From abstract to concrete

By Mary O’Callaghan

I’m ashamed of Australia’s record of extinctions but I confess that at times I glaze over when I’m reading about conservation.

Some concepts—threatening processes, ecosystem services, vulnerable plant communities—are so abstract that I can’t picture them in my mind’s eye. If I can’t picture something, I’m not sure I fully understand it.

I often ask the scientist whose research I am writing about for a couple of examples.

With an example, I can often avoid over-explaining. And it gives me the chance to use concrete, colourful nouns and strong verbs which make the writing easier to read and the story easier to remember.

But nothing beats getting out in the field and seeing it with your eyeballs.

Imagine standing face to face with an animal that is one of only seven (7) left on the planet.

I had this experience in northern Kenya in September when for a moment I eyeballed a northern white rhino, one of four residing in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy where I was volunteering on an Earthwatch lion-tracking expedition (you read that right!).

The rhino stared out from behind an electric wire fence that is patrolled 24/7 by armed guards to keep out poachers who will kill for the horn (the guards can be victims too).

It’s a picture lodged in my memory bank and tightly connected to my feelings at the time—sorrow, despair, bewilderment. How could we, humanity, have let it come to this?

But hope too. A sliver of hope that he will get it on with one of the 2 girls in the enclosure, though they have their problems too. Failing that, there is only extinction. He is one of the last 2 breeding males.

Cross-breeding with another sub-species of rhino is another option but seems to me like a poor consolation prize. It’s an option that has given me cause to ponder the conservation dilemma of whether we should intervene here, or indeed anywhere, and if so, to what degree. I struggle with this one.

On my return from Kenya, everyone was keen to hear about my encounters with lions and, yes, I am still pinching myself about being at close quarters with these almost mythical predators which, since childhood, I was exposed to in storybooks and movies and tv.

We happened upon these thirsty brothers one morning and watched them for 20 minutes. Highlight!!!
Photo: Mary O’Callaghan

But to everyone—friends, family, colleagues, anyone who will listen—I find myself saying, “What really affected me was the plight of the rhino. Let me tell you…”.

And they in turn, people from all walks of life, are equally fascinated and shocked by my recounting of the rhino debacle. There is no need for abstract concepts. They get it.

[Note: Since September, 2 of the 7 northern white rhinos have died: Suni, in Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Angalifu, in San Diego Zoo Safari Park.]

And then there were 5. Suni died suddenly in October 2014.
Photo: Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Be a backyard scientist

By Tom Dixon

According to the Atlas of Living Australia, there’s no real data on whether birdbaths encourage birds into gardens, whether they encourage more species, or what types of birds benefit from them.

So how about joining this summer’s bathing birds survey?

All you need to do is watch your birdbath for 20 minutes a few times a week and record your sightings on the portal.

You’ll be getting out in the field, in your own backyard.

At a friend’s house last week, I was lucky enough to spot double-barred and red-browed finches in their birdbath. And, of course, living in Australia, we get regular visits from our local kookaburras.

A kookaburra in my backyard
Photo: Tom Dixon

For me, there’s just something about birds that reminds me of the beauty of nature. In our increasingly urban lifestyles, isn’t it great to be able to encourage nature into our own yards, and protect just a little of that beauty?

You’ve got until the 23 February to enter your birdbath data, so register here and get spotting!