MCS student finds that all unsealed roads lead to the Great Barrier Reef – and a job!

For Sri Lankan student Chamantha Athapaththu the International Water Centre (IWC) Master of Catchment Science (MCS) course provided the knowledge and experience necessary to immediately secure a job in the field he was interested in.

As one of the first alumni of the MCS course, Chamantha was impressed by the flexibility around the way the program was delivered and the real-world experience he gained from it. He says flexibility was essential as the start of the course coincided with the COVID pandemic and subsequent restrictions soon after he arrived in Australia.

Chamantha became interested in water management when he was using GIS to research groundwater as part of his undergrad studies in Environmental Science.

“I was working as a teaching assistant at a university and looking for postgraduate opportunities in water management when I noticed the programs delivered by the IWC,” Chamantha said.

“The MCS course provided a holistic view of catchment science and included interesting subjects like Hydrology, Geomorphology, Ecology and how all these things interact. I realised that this was what I wanted to do and that the subjects covered in this program will be useful in the future.”

Andrew Brooks is the convenor of a number of courses in the Masters program. He believes there was a real need in the market for an integrated catchment science course that looked at the way water moves through the environment and the interaction between erosion, sedimentation, and vegetation and how land use affects these processes.

“Over the past couple of years, we have experienced extreme fires and floods and we know these events will be becoming more common, so it is important that we build a broad range of knowledge around water quality and what we need to do better to improve the resilience of our catchments.”

“Because the course is targeted as professional development for those already working in the water industry or looking to step up to the next level, we are very flexible around the way the program is delivered and provide a broad range of practical experience,” Andrew explains.

“The course can be completed full time over two years or part time, and we offer a mix of online classes in the evening mixed with an intensive week on campus and to do field trips. Students complete a major project in their final year.”

Chamantha’s final project assessed the sediment erosion risk from unsealed roads into Great Barrier Reef (GBR) catchments.

Improving water quality in the GBR catchment has been a major focus for different levels of Government in efforts to protect one of Australia’s greatest assets, and some research has found that unsealed roads could be contributing to the deterioration of water quality.

It may not seem like a big problem, but as Andrew points out, in some areas like Cape York the road network is the single largest intensive land use (double the area of intensive cropping)– especially if you take into account unsealed roads on private properties as well.

Private properties can have extensive road networks which needs to be quite substantial to cart cattle, and then there will always be a myriad of little tracks.

Road networks often act as channels into the surrounding landscape and contribute to gully erosion, adding more fine sediment to the streams which ultimately ends up on the Reef.

The first part of Chamantha’s project focused on mapping all the road networks. He initially started out using GIS (geographic information system) and Lidar (light detection and ranging) technology to extract the road network, but it proved to be a challenge as the road network was underrepresented in the current data sets.

“In some places roads would be covered by canopy vegetation, especially if they are not used regularly, so in the end, I had to manually digitise the road network,” Chamantha said.

He then developed a method to determine the sediment delivery potential of roads based on the hydrological connection of road segments and on flow accumulation.

“In my research I found that there was also very little data available on sediment concentrations in the water,” Chamantha says. “Pulling all this data together may help researchers in the future to be able to get better estimates.”

Andrew says since Chamantha completed his project, he knows of two additional research projects funded by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation that are investigating unsealed road runoff and working with Local Governments on improving management practices to reduce sediment loads.

“This research has been very timely. There has been a gap in understanding of the processes in catchments. Prior to Chamantha’s work, the best understanding we had about unsealed roads was from forestry studies into logging operations in the 1980s and 90s. In some ways we were translating some of that work and collecting relevant data on roads and soil types in some of the reef catchment areas, especially in the tropics and savannah areas where we get intense rainfall during the wet season,” Andrew said.

“Chamantha’s research highlights these types of issues within catchment models and, by identifying high risk road segments, can help management to focus money and resources where it is needed most.”

For Chamantha the hard work has paid off. In the process he improved his GIS skills, learned to work with Lidar images and gained geomorphology knowledge.

His knowledge also paid off for Hydrobiology, the environmental consulting company that ended up employing Chamantha at the end of the course.

“When I saw the job with Hydrobiology, I realised that this was what I wanted to do,” Chamantha recalls.

“I had no work experience, but I knew that the knowledge was covered in the course and I was successful in my application. I now work in the Land and Water Management team where we are focused on geomorphology, sediment transport and other soil erosion in aquatic environments. We do a lot of channel stabilisation work where my contribution is mostly technical using GIS and aerial images to study channel stability.”

Chamantha says he highly recommends the Master of Catchment Science to those interested in furthering their career in integrated water management.

“The course has such a broad range of subjects starting from natural science ecology to physical aspects like geomorphology and hydrology, some computational subjects like water modelling and GIS and even economics. All these topics will be important for any kind of job related to water management in the future,” he says.

Another bonus as an international student was that the two-year Masters program gave Chamantha enough credit points to get a three year postgraduate visa which allows him to work in Australia and get more professional experience. (Usually the postgraduate visa is two years for masters by course work and three years for masters by research, although this year they increased it by one year for both – students will need to check this information to confirm the current status.)

Andrew says the MSC offer students a professional teaching program that is very focused on applied skills working in the catchment management realm.

“This is an area that is increasingly being recognised around the world as a much-needed integrated approach – particularly with climate change. What we offer is very hands on and practical learning experience. I’ve worked in this area for nearly 30 years doing applied research and work closely with clients who are doing catchment management, so our students get a lot of feedback on current industry best practice. It is not purely academic teaching – it is a very applied course.”

So, if you are looking for skills that can be applied directly into the workplace with consulting or catchment management agencies or internationally with organisation like the World Bank dealing with water and erosion management issues, then the MSC could be the course for you.