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Ten dry years transformed Australian thinking about weather

and water. The world can learn from their approach. Rob

Vertessy, the director of the Bureau of Meteorology: ‘Our

water-trading systemmakes a combination of long dry

periods and economic growth possible.’



he fact that Dr Rob Vertessy now

heads a meteorological institute

is quite remarkable: he started

out as a hydrologist. It’s hardly

surprising that his institute has

been led by meteorologists for more

than a hundred years. But no longer, and that is

a significant change. Australian scientists have

developed multi-disciplinary, pioneering solutions

for long-term water shortages.

You are the first hydrologist to be

appointed director of a meteorological

institute. Surely meteorologists and

hydrologists are like cats and dogs?

‘Not really, we are all dogs really and we get along

fine: we complement one another. As a hydrologist,

I studied forest water regimes and catchment

modelling, and during the drought crisis I

advised the government to set up a sound water

information system. They asked me to do the job

at the Bureau of Meteorology. And I’m still here.’

Has there been a change in the approach to

water issues now that meteorologists and

hydrologists have teamed up?

‘Absolutely. We used to forecast how much rain

there would be, and where. At least, we did our

best. Nowadays, we are an institute that uses

accurate forecasts to help people to come up with

smart ways of coping with nature’s moods. For

example, we work out how much water you can

remove from a catchment without damaging the

local ecosystem. These are things that you may

not think about in the short term but they make a

world of difference in the long term.’

Australian nature can be a tough


‘That’s right. First we had a decade-long drought

and then so much rain that we couldn’t get rid

of the water for months. Of course, as such,

droughts are nothing new but the population and

the economy have grown so fast that we reached

a tipping point at the end of the last century. We

have enormous catchments on which four states

depend at the same time. So disputes about water

are always a possibility. One of the things that we

have got good at is preventing situations of that


Which solutions are you proud of?

‘Australia has a healthy water market. To extract

water, you need a permit and then it is possible

to trade the water that has been extracted within

regions. Of course, the drought put a lot of pressure