We interviewed our leading academics to discover their recipe for success.
Professor Faisal Hai, director of the Strategic Water Infrastructure Lab shares his journey from Bangladesh to the University of Wollongong.
What do you do?
I am an environmental engineer. That means that I deal with all issues, but mostly with water quantity and quality. For example, when we have drought we are all screaming for water and we have a very uneven pattern of rainfall. Traditionally we have been reliant on dams where we can store water. With the recent drought, that strategy may not work in the near future. How can we ensure that we have enough water?
How did it all start?
I was born and raised in Bangladesh. The seed was planted there. I came to this specialty because there were all sorts of environmental problems in Bangladesh and it was close to my taste. Everybody knows Bangladesh floods but it’s a drainage area. The countries upstream control the water, so some parts of Bangladesh are dry now. Many of the rivers have now died because of control of water upstream.
It was a mixture of my surroundings and what my taste was. I had three significant career milestones – Bangladesh, Japan and now Australia.
What was your early inspiration?
Rather than any person, there was a significant situation that prompted me. That was the groundwater contamination in Bangladesh by a chemical called arsenic. It came from within the soil, not industrial contamination.
One of the reasons was because people are reliant on groundwater and over extraction was one of the triggers. The surface water is mostly too contaminated. There is a long-term impact that can lead to cancer. You don’t die instantly. The poorest people were those who were most affected. This was in the early 1990s and the situation has improved in some areas, but there is still a long way to go.
I realised that you really need a system where the surface water is improved, so there is less need for groundwater.
How has climate change affected the work?
More frequent droughts and erratic rainfall tell us that we need to reduce our reliance on water from rainfall. I am trying to look at storm water reuse, wastewater reuse, or desalination. This climate change urgency has made me shift to try and improve our climate independent water sources.
What does the future hold?
I think it’s absolutely crucial that we start to diversify our water sources. The problem is that we are short sighted. When we have droughts we take steps but when it ends, both politicians and people wonder why we are throwing money at water when we are in flood. Climate dependent water is going to decline. Droughts will be more frequent.
Australia can do better in terms of positioning itself as one of the leading countries striving to create safe water. We could do better. There is a risk from emerging contaminants, which we didn’t even know existed 50 years ago. It’s high time to prepare for the next step, rather than just satisfy the current guidelines.
What’s your favourite way of spending time?
I actually like reading very much. Novels and that kind of thing. Five or six newspapers all over the world. I also have to do a lot of scientific reading. I am not an exercise kind of person. It’s more indoors like working in my garden or cooking. A recent hobby is using social media to monitor the public impressions about the issues of water – LinkedIn and Twitter.