Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Sound of Rivers

The bush is quivering with Silver Eyes. First you hear them chirping and then detect a flash among the branches. These tiny yellowy-green birds are hard to spot with their camouflaged feathers but I stand quietly and tune into the sound and sight as the small birds herald the day and the hint of rain.

In the background the Circadas sing their rhythmic chikkkssshh-chchikkkersssh. A Magpie sits on the top of one of the taller eucalypt trees and carrolls. The Ravens communicate loudly with others across the riverw with a long-drawn out Waaaaaaagh. While the muffled sound of rowers' voices rise up from the water as the wash from the sculls laps the shore with a sshhsshing reminiscent of the tides.

All rivers have their own distinctive sound.

In Switzerland last year a special art/sound exhibition was mounted to promote the Voice of the River. Organised by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag), the tonal art show highlighted the differing sounds of wild and managed rivers. Its aim, in part, was to alert gallery vistors to what happens to the rivers' voice in their wild state compared with tamed and controlled river spaces.

In specific locations along the river, the sound of the rivers' flow, their textures and rhythms, were recorded and the expansive voice of wild water filled the gallery. From the rushshshing dance of fast flowing streams, to the gurgling of sacred springs, from the thunderous roar of the waterfalls to the peacefulness of quiet pools, the exhibition intended to show, through sound, the ecological significance of wild rivers and the changes in river ecology wrought though human impacts such as channelling, dredging, damming and other management measures.

At the heart of this soundscape display was the sensual and aesthetic value of water. Wild rivers are not only scenically beautiful and ecologically important, they are also sonorifically stunning. And, says the river ecology research centre, Eawag's Aquatic Research division, these liquid acoustics can be used as a drawcard for ecotourism. Sound + Beauty = Pleasure.

Ecologically and scientifically, Eawag is researching the specific tone or 'fingerprint' of rivers and streams in, what they say is an 'innovative holistic assessment of the ecological state of the watercourse'. The study brings together the aesthetic, the affective and the ecological in an evocative ambience designed to bring people's awareness into the waterway, to touch their memories and emotions, and to draw their attention to the relationship between aesthetics and sustainability, and the plight of wild rivers.

Listen to the river. Another sound-art project is the Ear to Earth Project, a repository of nature's wonders through sound. Visit the site and enjoy the manifold expressions of water and other natural places. Called 'sonic shamen', the sound artists follow 'a path of listening—a creative, immersive journey toward deeper connection, reflected back to us in compositions created of natural and human-made soundscapes.'

Hear the river's flow. Feel the echo of the Butcher Birds' piercing call. Catch the rain-tone. Listen to the wind as it sways the branches. Experience the river through the senses. Escape into liquid.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

At the Watershed

In the US the term watershed is equivalent to the expression water catchment used in Australia and elsewhere. Watershed is also a term used metaphorically or figuratively to indicate a dividing line - a watershed issue - a line of division.

The word watershed came into use around the beginning of the 19th century. Then it represented the boundary between two river systems. It also referred to the surrounding hills and ridges and indicated the side of the hill or ridge where the rain fell and the water flowed. But in the US it has a wider meaning and refers to the wider river catchment, or river valley, that 'catches' the water drawing it towards the river.

Political editor from the Australian Newspaper, Dennis Shanahan(2006), put the issue quite differently when speaking about Australia's water crisis and water shortage.

' the heart of this crisis of water management is a complex web of conflicting and warring political and governmental interests, where states such as South Australia suffer at the mouth of the Murray while Queensland allows huge water harvesting for cotton at the head of the Darling system, and the Federal Government funds water initiatives without any power to force action.'

Water sources have become a political and ecological watershed.

Using the term watershed in its figurative sense, let's look at the watershed issue of logging the water catch-ments. The water or hydrological cycle is very clear, especially in the drawings of the cycle from primary school science classes. The rain is shown as falling onto the side of the hill which is treed or forested. The trees and land catch the water, channelling it to the ground water and eventually to the creeks, tributaries and flowing water.

A New Zealand report by Haikai Tane (2004) states that: 'Australia and New Zealand are caught in an intractable cultural dilemma.' The report declares that the continued industrialisation of water catchments for timber as well as surrounding development has 'led local communities in watershed catchments ... to believe that the long term degradation of watershed catchments is normal and natural. The degradation of watershed catchments in Australia and New Zealand will continue unabated so long as communities impose activities and infrastructure that destroys ecostructure.'

The issue is one of division and values, economic versus ecological, aesthetic versus industrial, spiritual versus profitability and resource use. Tane write 'that key cosmic roles have reversed, for industrial society sets goals like Gods, and Nature becomes its maid and servant.' This is so reminiscent of the issues raised in Carolyn Merchant's 1980 ground-breaking work, The Death of Nature as well as Val Plumwood's Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993).

Leading Australian water researcher Professor Peter Cullen makes the issue clear: 'Catchment land use is an important driver of river health, and river health seems commonly to be impaired when agricultural activities cover more than 30 per cent of a catchment area; although distance from the river and the health of the riparian vegetation can mediate these effects. The removal of native vegetation can markedly alter the hydrologic behaviour of a catchment.'

'As trees are removed, runoff commonly increases, as does the amount of water flowing below the root zone and entering groundwater, and this may lead to consequent waterlogging and salinity, although there may be a lag of 20 to 50 years before these impacts are obvious.'

'River and wetland health is assisted if the connections between a river channel and its floodplain and wetlands are maintained, allowing recovery from stress events. Deeper pools and wetlands may be important refuges that allow organisms to survive extreme high or low flow events. This is called resilience: the capacity to recover. The riparian zone has a profound impact on stream ecosystem processes.'

Re-making wetlands and deep pools, developing programs aimed at ecological resilience, regeneration of riparian zones, removal of noxious weed species and revitalization of native plant species - it seems all these things can help on the eco-front, but on the socio-political front, Haikai Tane declares we need a deeper understanding and a regeneration and revitalization of awareness, values and actions.

'What post-industrial society urgently needs is a new paradigm for understanding watershed catchments based on the integrity and connectivity of catchment habitats and landscape ecosystems.'

Cullen P, 2007, The Ecological Challenge of Water Reform, ATSE Focus, 145,
Merchant C, 1980, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, San Francisco, Haper and Row.
Plumwood V, 1993, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, New York: Routledge.
Shanahan D, 2006, A Watershed on the Water Front, The Australian, Sept 26, 2006.
Tane H, 2004, Catchment Habitats and Landscape Ecosystems, Watershed Systems Ltd,Center for Catchment Ecology,

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

EcoFlows and Spirit of Place

At the big international river event in 2007, a highly significant declaration was made to protect waterway flows along global river systems to ensure freshwater ecosystem health and human well-being.

The initial statement from the Riversymposium and International Environmental Flows Conference, acknowledges that 'freshwater ecosystems are the foundation of our social, cultural, and economic well-being.'

This is a massive change. The Declaration recognises the need for healthy freshwaterways to ensure the ongoing sustainability of society and culture as well as the economic bouyancy of the planet. The flourishing of the economy is inextricably linked to the ecology of rivers, lakes, floodplains, wetlands and estuaries. To me, this is a revelation but will it be enacted when governments are planning development, dams, mines, inappropriate agriculture, or wholescale logging?

While the government's ecological sustainable development (ESD) policy involves a balance beween the environment, the economy and the social, government decisions seem to prefer the economic over the ecological and the social. But not always, as the spread of marine protected areas (MPAs) in Australia has shown. Sadly action around MPA implementation is not a global change.

Of the three components that comprise ESD, the social seems to have the least action and interest directed to it. Thus a declaration that links social wellbeing with freshwater ecosystems is a real highlight from Brisbane's annual River Symposium.

Social impacts are well recognised as part of government planning and social impact assessments are often undertaken before development or policy implementation, but concern and action around potential social impacts after the event may be overlooked while social problems may be relegated to the welfare sector.

Yet one vital feature but one often neglected in ESD frameworks is the spiritual impact of decisions. Government decisions may follow the precautionary principle of when in doubt, don't. They may consider social concerns and likely social problems but they ignore the spirtual, and the impact on a community's, family's or individual's spirit.

An understanding of spiritual impacts might be incorporated into Aboriginal land rights cases or be included in projects affecting indigenous cultures and communities in developing nations and peasant or shamanic societies, but spiritual issues are not usually part of environmental or social impact assessments related to projects affecting non-indigenous cultures in the developed world.

An inclusion of the spiritual looks holistically. It embraces the spiritual as part of social health and wellbeing as well as ecological reverence. It honours the evironment and the fresh and saltwater ecosystems as 'persons' in their own right.

Psychological distress through loss of place, through upheavals in ecosytems from development, clearfelling, pollution of rivers and oceans, inappropriate agricuture, depletion of fisheries, loss of land and even natural disasters, has been demonstrated. I find it paradoxical that counselling may be offered after natural disasters but trauma around human-created loss of place and the effect on people's spirit, their resilience, their health and wellbeing, may neither be recognised nor acted upon.

The Brisbane River offers solace and peace. It's an icon for the city. At the moment its dark brown muddy colour is a reminder that the drought of a couple of weeks ago may now be a memory. The rain is flushing out the river and rushing through stormwater drains, local creeks and steep gutters and sadly causing flooding along its way. Wetlands, floodways, billabongs were once part of this vibrant river system but since European settlement these essential habitats have been over-channelled, filled in and changed - with a consequent loss of water quality in what was once a place of clear clear water.

The spirit of this city is related to environmental flows.

The River Symposium Declaration states that: 'Freshwater ecosystems are seriously impaired and continue to degrade at alarming rates. Aquatic species are declining more rapidly than terrestrial and marine species. As freshwater ecosystems degrade, human communities lose important social, cultural, and economic benefits; estuaries lose productivity; invasive plants and animals flourish; and the natural resilience of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and estuaries weakens. The severe cumulative impact is global in scope.

'Flow alteration imperils freshwater and estuarine ecosystems. ...The goal of environmental flow management is to restore and maintain the socially valued benefits of healthy, resilient freshwater ecosystems through participatory decision making informed by sound science. Ground-water and floodplain management are integral to environmental flow management.'

The Declaration concludes:
'Climate change intensifies the urgency. ... The progress made to date falls far short of the global effort needed to sustain healthy freshwater ecosystems and the economies, livelihoods, and human well-being that depend upon them.'