Managing water across borders

Koshi River in Nepal

Koshi River in Nepal. Image by Amy North

As World Water Week draws to a close, we want to tell you about a water management project we’re involved with in the developing world.

The Koshi River basin covers some of the poorest parts of China, India and Nepal. The river stretches more than 700km, from China in the north, down through Nepal and across the Himalayas, and finally feeds into the Ganges River. Millions of people live in the region – many of them in flood-prone areas – and rely on the river and the fertile floodplain for their livelihoods.

We’re helping to manage the river better and improve the circumstances of the people living there.

The area is subject to floods, droughts landslides and flows of debris. Erosion also leads to heavy sedimentation, and rivers have been known to change their course.

NASA image showing course change

This NASA satellite image shows a change of the Koshi River’s course.

The effects of climate change aren’t helping, either. Glaciers in the upper reaches of the Basin are melting, bringing water and sediments down to the plains. The people of the Koshi River Basin are in an increasingly vulnerable situation. The impacts of climate change are disturbing water supply and agricultural production. Adding more pressure, the demand for energy and food production is rising.

Raising the stakes even higher, the Koshi Basin also has areas of significant biodiversity, including a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – Australian Aid, we’re working with partners including the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the International Water Management Institute and eWater  to develop an integrated modelling framework for the entire basin. We’re helping to develop water balance models that capture the relationship between climate (both rainfall and temperature) and stream-flow (and flood risk) in the Koshi River Basin.

We’re also working on characterising the seasonality and variability of stream flow, and, if possible, the expected trends in stream-flow. We’ll also develop techniques for understanding the likelihood of particular stream-flow estimates.

We aim to use the research and knowledge gained from these projects to allow a regionally coordinated approach to developing and managing the Koshi Basin’s water resources. The people of the area, and the environment, should both benefit.

Our solar team sets a hot and steamy world record

The run of sunny weather we’ve had in south-eastern Australia over the last few weeks has been breaking quite a few records – and not just on the weather charts.

A team of solar thermal engineers and scientists at our Energy Centre in Newcastle have used the ample sunlight flooding their solar fields to create what’s called ‘supercritical’ steam – an ultra-hot, ultra-pressurised steam that’s used to drive the world’s most advanced power plant turbines – at the highest levels of temperature and pressure EVER recorded with solar power.


The heliostat array, as viewed from Solar Tower 2.

They used heat from the sun, reflected off a field of heliostats (or mirrors) and concentrated onto a central receiver point to create the steam at these supercritical levels. The achievement is being described in the same terms as breaking the sound barrier, so impressive are its possible implications for solar thermal technology.

So what is it exactly that these Chuck Yaegers of the solar world have gone and done?

Put simply, the temperature of the steam they created (570° C) is about twice the maximum heat of your kitchen oven – or around the point where aluminium alloy would start melting. And the accompanying pressure (23.5 megapascals) is about 100 times as high as the pressure in your car tyres, or roughly what you’d experience if you were about 2 kilometres under the surface of the ocean.

Solar thermal tower.

The solar thermal tower in action: check out the steam being generated.

That’s all impressive in itself. But when you take into consideration that this is the first time solar power has ever been used to create these ‘supercritical’ levels on this scale – traditionally only ever reached using the burning of fossil fuels – the real worth of this achievement begins to sink in.

Solar thermal, or concentrating solar power (CSP) power plants have traditionally only ever operated at ‘subcritical’ levels, meaning they could not match the efficiency or output of the world’s most state of the art fossil fuel power plants.

How a solar thermal power plant works.

How a supercritical solar thermal power plant would work.

Enter our team and their Advanced Solar Steam Receiver Project. To prove that solar thermal technology can match it with the best fossil fuel systems, they developed a fully automated control system which predicts the heat delivered from every mirror (or heliostat), allowing them to achieve maximum heat transfer, without overheating and fatiguing the receiver. With this amount of control, they were able to accurately recreate the temperature and pressures needed for supercritical success.

So instead of relying on burning coal to produce supercritical steam, this method demonstrates that the power plants of the future could be using the zero emission energy of the sun to reach peak efficiency levels – and at a cheaper price.

While the technology may be a fair way off commercial development, this achievement is a big step in paving the way for a low cost, low emission energy future.

 The $5.68 million research program is supported by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and is part of a broader collaboration with Abengoa Solar, the largest supplier of solar thermal electricity in the world. 

For media inquiries, contact Nick Kachel on (02) 4960 6270 or

Improving prediction of deadly Irukandji jellyfish blooms

A decades-old problem in predicting Irukandji blooms has been solved by a team of our scientists, and the results could directly benefit northern Australia’s community and its tourism industry.

Last year we wrote about a new Irukandji forecasting system that Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin and her team were testing in northern Queensland.

The team were looking to prove a link between Irukandji blooms and weather conditions, based on a hindcast of previous Irukandji stings and correlating weather records, so that they could accurately predict future blooms.

Irukandji jellyfish.

Carukia barnesi, the so-called ‘common Irukandji’, taken in sampling nets at Palm Cove near Cairns. Credit: Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin.

In a paper published today in the Journal of the Royal Society, Lisa-ann and her team have presented their findings, which demonstrate a clear link between Irukandji blooms and trade winds – or lack thereof.

Says Lisa-ann, “We know that Irukandji blooms generally co-occur with blooms of another invertebrate, called salps. We also know that salp blooms are triggered by upwelling, which in northern Queensland is driven by subsidence of trade winds. Sure enough, when we investigated we found a clear connection between recorded Irukandji ‘sting days’ and days when there was little to no trade wind present.”

Around Palm Cove, a beach near Cairns where the tests took place, the southeast trade winds are the dominant wind most of the time. These trade winds cause a net downwelling pressure that pushes the water downward and out to sea. However, when these winds begin to ease in the summer months, an upwelling occurs. It is these upwellings that Lisa-ann and her team believe transport Irukandji to the top of the water column – and on towards shore.

Irukandji stings on skin.

The subtle marks of an Irukandji sting belie their deadly potency. Credit: Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin.

Finding this elusive key to Irukandji bloom prediction has been a long process.

“More than 70 years worth of work has gone into trying to accurately predict Irukandji blooms, and I myself spent 18 years attempting to establish a link,” says Lisa-ann

“It wasn’t until I came to CSIRO and collaborated with my co-authors, who are ecological and oceanographic specialists, that we made the connection.”

This early warning system could potentially allow individuals, communities, councils and governments, as well as other marine industries, to know about Irukandji blooms up to a week in advance. By being able to predict Irukandji blooms, we can reduce the direct threat to ocean-goers by closing beaches, and also reduce anxieties and uncertainties associated with areas known for Irukandji stings.

Beach closure due to Irukandji.

A beach closure at Palm Cove due to an Irukandji bloom. Credit: Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin.

Lisa-ann says this study is just the first step. Further refinements and testing mean that we could provide greater certainty in prediction, and further reduce the rate of Irukandji stings. The system also has the potential to be rolled out at a national and international level.

“However, we must reiterate that this forecasting system is not a miracle cure for Irukandji,” says Lisa-ann. “We can never remove the threat completely.

Visit our website for more information on the Irukandji forecasting system.

For media enquiries or a copy of the Royal Society paper abstract contact Kirsten Lea, +61 2 4960 6245 or


Creative ways we’re keeping fish on your plate

Grilled with garlic, oven baked, or lightly pan fried with a hint of lemon: Blue-eye Trevalla is one of Australia’s premium seafoods, and an iconic fish species for commercial fishers and seafood lovers alike.

A blue-eye dish at a restuarant.

Mmmmmm Blue-eye. Easy to cook, easy to prepare … it’s hard to get it wrong, according to the owner of the Mures seafood restaurant in Hobart.

Despite having been fished commercially for over 40 years in deep waters off southern Australia, the Blue-eye’s early life-history and movement is still shrouded in mystery.

Our research into these aspects of the Blue-eye’s biology aims to give certainty to government regulators and hopefully lead to increases in the catch quota for the fishing industry, which, in recent years, has dropped by 50 per cent due to apparent decreases in the fish’s abundance.

Ear bone’s connected to the catch quota

Using chemical signatures in the make-up of the Blue-eye’s ear bones, we aim to determine the fish’s population structure, early life-history and movement in the fishery area – which extends roughly from Brisbane to Adelaide, and includes several offshore seamounts.

Once the ear bone is daintily plucked from inside a fish’s head, we use laser-based sampling techniques to identify its chemical signature. From this we can infer each individual fish’s geographical origin.

With sufficiently large numbers of sampled fish in specific age groups, and when combined with models of ocean currents, the origins of Blue-eye populations in different fishery areas can be estimated.

These insights enable our analysis of the commercial catch to become location-specific or ‘regionalised’ and reduce many of the uncertainties in the assessment of total stock size.

Dr Alan Williams holds a blue-eye ear bone.

CSIRO’s Dr Alan Williams holds a tiny ear bone from this fresh Blue-eye (Hyperoglyphe antarctica).

A greater confidence in the stock assessment will ensure a sustainable catch for Australia’s fishing industry and the continued availability of Blue-eye for consumers’ plates.

Find out more about the project in this video:


The project is funded by the Australian Government through the CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship, DPI Victoria, and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation. Footage and images were taken in Hobart, thanks to the Captain, Russell Potter, and crew of the fishing vessel Diana, and Will Mure and head chef from the Mures Restaurant.

Media contact: t 02 4960 6245 m 0457 563 684

Blowing pollution out of the water

We're lending a hand in India to help improve their water quality. Image: M. DeFreese/CIMMYT.

We’re lending a hand in India to improve water quality. Image: M. DeFreese/CIMMYT.

By Jan Mahoney

Australians are a pretty fortunate lot – we have beautiful coastlines, top notch education and high-quality health care. Recent ABS data even shows that most Aussies are healthier, wealthier and happier than we were a decade ago.

But what about those who aren’t so lucky? It’s easy to forget about the millions of people in our neighbouring countries with no access to basic necessities like clean water and sanitation.

When it comes to clean drinking water, around 780 million people are living without it. That’s more than two and a half times the entire population of the United States.

India in particular is facing some serious water quality problems. Each day 29,000 million litres of sewage are generated, but only one quarter of this amount can be treated. The untreated sewage that gets discharged from cities and towns ends up in rivers and lakes, causing severe contamination.

India’s water is also heavily polluted by agricultural run-off containing fertilisers and pesticides. As the largest industry in Asia and the twelfth largest in the entire world, India produces a whopping 90,000 metric tons of pesticides each year. When enough of this waste enters India’s waterways, it can contaminate crops, harm children’s development and make the water supply poisonous and undrinkable.

Today, only 31 per cent of the 167 million rural households in India have access to tap water and domestic toilets. In fact, more people in India have a mobile phone than a toilet.

To help solve this problem, our researchers have travelled to India to give local scientists, academics and regulators a hand.

One of our researchers, Dr Anu Kumar (left), discussing safe water with village women.

One of our researchers, Dr Anu Kumar (left), discussing safe water with village women.

As part of our ‘Safe water for the future through Indo-Oz network’ project funded by Australian AID, the team is providing locals with the tools and techniques needed to assess the impacts of water pollution.

Through sharing case studies from Australian experiences, they are helping Indians better determine the likely impacts of climate change and the risks posed by cocktails of contaminants in water and sediments.

The project is also educating local children about environmental pollution issues. For instance, the team recently took a group of rural school kids to the local Ganga Aquarium to teach them about the importance of water safety, pollution and human health.

These children often miss out on formal education, and instead aid their parents as farmers, fishermen or garbage and landfill waste pickers.

Rural school kids from Lucknow learn about water safety at the Ganga Aquarium.

Rural school kids from Lucknow learn about water safety at the Ganga Aquarium.

By helping India’s next generation recognise the importance of clean water, these kids will have the potential to create a healthier, sustainable environment for the entire country in years to come.

Learn more about how we’re working towards a water-secure world.

Bio robots make a splash in the Indian Ocean

It sounds like a bad sci-fi plot: a fleet of ‘bio robots’ are let loose in the world’s third largest ocean to study its physical and biological makeup.

What could they be up to? Are they the first wave of an alien invasion, ala Independence Day or War of the Worlds? Or are they a human made technology turned evil, Terminator-style?

An Argo float being deployed.

When Argos attack?

Thankfully, the answer is none of the above: these bio robots will be used for the powers of good. They’re part of a new research collaboration between our scientists and their Indian counterparts at the Indian National Institute of Oceanography (CSIR-NIO) and the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS).

In fact, we should probably stop calling them bio robots, as cool as it sounds. They are actually an enhancement of an existing technology, known as ‘Argo’ floats. These clever robotic sensors are designed to help us understand how our oceans are influencing the climate.

About the size of a big barracuda, the free-floating devices are programmed to dive to depths of 1000m and 2000m over a ten-day period, and measure the ocean’s temperature as they go. They will repeat this cycle for years at a time.

There is currently a network of 3,600 Argo floats dotted across the world’s oceans, owned and operated by more than 30 different international research organisations.

Here’s a video of our marine scientist, Dr Susan Wijffels, explaining how they work:

Why Bio Argos?

The Indian Ocean is of vital strategic importance to its border nations. The east Indian Ocean alone is home to almost half of the world’s fishermen and women, and it yields around 8 per cent of global fish production. It contains the third-largest tuna fishery in the world, with an estimated value of US$2-3 billion annually. Plus, it contains mineral resources like copper, iron, zinc, silver and gold.

It also drives the climate of its surrounding regions, which make up more than 16 per cent of the world’s entire population. So, all in all, you can see why it’s important that we keep track of what’s going on below the surface.

Our new Bio Argos, as we call them, will be launched in the Indian Ocean by Australian and Indian vessels midway through this year. They will be equipped with tiny sensors that can measure biological indicators within the ocean like dissolved oxygen, nitrate, chlorophyll, dissolved organic matter and particle scattering.

A diagram explaining the Bio Argo float cycle (click through for a larger image).

A diagram explaining the Bio Argo float cycle (click through for a larger image).

Together, these sensors can tell us about the growth of plankton cells that drive the biology of the Indian Ocean, how much carbon they take up, how much gets used up the food chain and how much gets buried. Knowing about this growth is important for predicting how much food the Indian Ocean can produce, and how much carbon dioxide it can capture – which has a direct impact on climate.

Collecting this data will give us a better idea of what keeps the Indian Ocean healthy and productive, allowing us to manage its resources more effectively. It will also help us understand how the ocean influences both the regional and global climate and extreme weather events, like the one that devastated the coastal waters and fisheries of north Western Australian in 2010-11.

To find out more about the Bio Argo floats and this research partnership, check out our media release.

Sight saving science for the Torres Strait

By Ali Green and Sarah Klistorner

An estimated one million Australians have diabetes and this number is expected to double by 2025. About 60 per cent of these people will develop eye issues, like the diabetes-related disease retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of irreversible blindness in Australian adults. The disease often has no early-stage symptoms and is four times more likely to affect indigenous Australians.

Just imagine if this disease was preventable.

A landscape image of Thursday Island coastline

On Thursday Island, Torres Strait, an ophthalmic nurse is screening eyes at the local hospital as part of the Tele-eye Care trial.

During the past few months, our researchers have been working with Queensland Health and the Indigenous and Remote Eye Health Service (IRIS) on the Torres Strait Islands to set up a remote eye screening service – giving hundreds of people access to specialist eye care.

For people living in remote areas, travelling a 5 hour round trip for specialist medical care can be disruptive to their family and community. Transporting patients can also be expensive.

A satellite broadband dish on a roof

Patient’s retinal images and health data can be sent from a remote community health clinic to the desk of a city based ophthalmologist.

Our Remote-I system is saving patients from the long and sometimes unnecessary journey by utilising local clinicians to conduct routine 15 minute retinal screenings, often as part of scheduled health clinic visits. Our technology sends hi-res retinal images taken in the screenings to ophthalmologists in Brisbane via satellite broadband.

Previously, ophthalmologists would only be able to fit in a limited number of eye screenings and surgeries when they visited remote communities. Once fully implemented, a city-based ophthalmologist will be able to screen up to 60 retinal images per week with the help of Remote-I.

Preliminary results from a review of data collected at one location showed that only three out of 82 patients screened to that date had a sight-threatening condition and required an immediate referral. Previously, those other 79 patients not requiring referrals may have held up the queue while the specialist was visiting the remote community. With Remote-I, those who need immediate treatment or attention can already be first in line.

With only 900 practicing ophthalmologists in Australia, and a high demand for eye health services in remote locations, finding new ways to deliver health services to remote communities is vital to providing the best care when and where it’s needed.

A Torres Strait man undergo an IRIS eye scan.

IRIS Coordinator patient screening in the Torres Strait.

By June 2014 the Tele-Eye Care trial will have screened 900 patients in remote WA and QLD. In addition to streamlining health care processes, the trial is collecting a lot of data.

And this is where the science gets interesting.

With patients’ consent, collected images will be used by the Tele-Eye Care project to study blood vessel patterns in retinas. Algorithms will then be designed to automatically detect particular eye diseases, which will aid diagnosis in routine screenings.

Even though tele-ophthalmology has been around for many years, this is the first time anyone has looked at image processing techniques to automatically detect eye defects in routine screening environments via satellite broadband.

A retinal image

Retinal images, each around 1.5MB in size, and electronic patient files are sent to an Ophthamologist in Brisbane.

We’re working hard to deliver better health outcomes for indigenous Australians. Being able to provide diagnoses on the spot will make a huge impact on delivering faster, more cost effective eye care services to the outback and prevent blindness.

This initiative is funded by the Australian Government.

Media contact: Ali Green +61 3 9545 8098


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