SMART researcher Dr Juan Castilla has just returned from Chile on a quest that is both simple and profound. He’s out to change the world.

Dr Castilla recently arrived at SMART after a career that started in water engineering and brought him to work in the driest place on the planet.

He has just returned from running a workshop, trying to bring together stakeholders in the Copiapo Basin in his native Chile.

This is an area where it hasn’t rained in more than 500 years. It sits in the rain shadow of the Andes to the east, and the Humboldt Current in the Pacific to the west.

Yet it’s an incredibly fertile valley fed by snowmelt from the Andes, with the perfect growing climate that allows crops to grow two or three months before anywhere else in the world, and so is crucial to the nation’s economy.

In addition, the valley contains mines that use water and bacteria that create ponds in the middle of the desert that are very sensitive to any changes in groundwater levels.

But it’s a place that is facing massive challenges.

Farmers, mining and water companies are extracting four times the amount of water that is replenished by snowmelt from the mountains.

Worse still, the Pinochet government of the 1980s scrapped all possibility of creating laws to regulate water use, instead leaving regulation to the free market. And that free market is leading to environment and economic catastrophe.

“The laws were designed so they had freedom to buy, sell and speculate with water rights. In principle it’s a good idea but created lots of problems in practice,” Dr Castilla says.

“Now the government doesn’t have any control with what happens with water. So now they have over allocated water.”

“In the basin where we are working, they have allocated four times the amount of water that is naturally replenished by rainfall and snowmelt.”

“That gave me a nice view of the system, of the different actors and how they have different types of information but also how they can’t agree on the right solution,” he said.

Dr Castilla has developed the idea of building what he calls ‘management flight simulators’, or software that allows people to understand the systems they inhabit, giving those affected the necessary knowledge and tools to choose their own future.

“The models that governments and consulting companies use tend to focus on how water moves from one place to another,” he says.

“They tend to abstract anything that has to do with humans, how humans make decisions and how governments make policies.”

By contrast, Dr Castilla has developed agent-based modelling, building an artificial society that represents real interactions and decision-making rules that mimic those used by real people in the real world. In this case, in the Copiapo Basin.

“These agents can be government agencies, they could be mining companies, they could be the drinking water company building new bores to satisfy the needs of a growing population, farmers, environmentalists, an NGO pushing towards the conservation of a wetland.

“They could be anything.”

The goal is to help people see how things work – if I do this, this is probably going to happen. It’s an exploratory approach.

When Dr Castilla first presented his ‘management flight simulator’ in the Copiapo Basin earlier this year, he faced a hostile crowd.

“When I put the prototype up it blew their minds that they increase the rainfall, change the pumping of a mining company, simulate the construction of a dam,” he says.

“They could see the impacts of those things – we finally had a way to discuss these things that was not in a report, on a piece of paper or in a PowerPoint presentation.”

The really exciting aspect of this research is that its applications go far beyond water usage in the Atacama Desert. They can be used anywhere that complex scientific modelling needs to be used by people who can effect change in the world.

Dr Castilla’s dream is to set up a research lab at SMART on management flight simulators, attracting students to tackle any number of problems in societies, especially where there are conflicting interests.

The technique is already being considered for the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia, but it could be used to create co-operation out of almost any conflict situation with competing interests.

“The reason I came to UOW is that I saw that SMART was trying to do things differently,” Dr Castilla says.

“In the end, it’s all about people. There is no point doing good science if we don’t put it in a form that the people who need it can actually use it.

“My message is that change is possible.”

Dr Juan Castilla presents his model at Participatory Modelling Workshop for Water Management with CSIRO Chile

For more, you can read UOW’s The Stand article, Working for the common good