Researcher Profile: Erin O'Donnell

Water law and policy

Tell us about your research

My research focuses on water law and policy, including water marketsenvironmental flows, and water governance. I have worked in water resource management since 2002, in both the private and public sectors, and my work is informed by a global perspective, including detailed comparative analysis across Australia, New Zealand, the USA, India, Colombia, and Chile. After completing my PhD in 2017, I am now a Melbourne Law School Early Career Academic Fellow.

I am recognized internationally for my work in the ground-breaking new field of legal rights and legal personality for rivers, and the challenges and opportunities these new rights create for protecting the multiple social, cultural and natural values of rivers. My research unearthed a crucial and unexpected paradox: new legal rights increase the environment’s legal powers, but in doing so, they can weaken community support for environmental protection, and drive legal reform that removes the protections afforded by legal personality.

I am increasingly working in the water justice space, in partnership with Traditional Owners and First Nations peoples, to drive a pluralist reform of water governance that centres their rights, interests, and world views. In settler colonial states like Australia, this is essential work to decolonise water law and water management, and to address the illegitimacy at the heart of water law and governance frameworks grounded in Aboriginal dispossession.

What points of connection do you see between your research and that in other disciplines?

Water is a multi-dimensional space and cannot be understood or effectively managed by considering it through a single lens. My research is informed by my work as a legal scholar, but I work closely with economists, geographers, hydrologists, landscape planners and social scientists. I also work closely with non-academic partners, including policy makers, water management agencies, and Traditional Owners. It is essential to keep asking: whose voices are being heard in water research and water management?

What has been a highlight of your research to date?

My research on environmental water management, and specifically the legal organisations that hold and manage water on behalf of rivers, provided some key insights into the implications of what happens when rivers gain legal rights and legal personality. My research was the first to identify the potential paradox of legal rights for rivers (in which the receipt of legal rights can lead to less protection for rivers), and helped to shape the global conversation in response to the recognition of rivers in Aotearoa New Zealand, India and Colombia as legal subjects in 2017. As a result of this work, I have also been appointed to the inaugural Birrarung Council, the voice of the Yarra River in Melbourne. In recognition of Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung law and relationship with the river, the Birrarung/Yarra river became the first in Australia to be legally defined as a single, living entity. I am so proud to play a role in giving effect to the voice of the river in partnership with the Traditional Owners.

Tell us about the U21 Water in Society workshop

I attended the Universitas 21 Early Career Researchers Workshop on ‘Water and Society’ in Lund, Sweden, in November 2019. My attendance at this workshop was supported by a $2500 grant from University of Melbourne Chancellery, and I gratefully acknowledge this support. The challenges of providing sufficient quantities, of safe, fit-for-purpose quality, of water for the myriad of human uses that depend on it, are common to all countries, although the specific issues remain highly context-specific. Under a climate change future, these challenges are already increasing in difficulty, as both water scarcity as well as flash flooding continue to increase. Technology continues to have a big part to play in both supply and demand management, but the cross-cutting theme of the workshop for me was the crucial role of social drivers. Water management is defined by what is politically acceptable, and affordable for citizens, and it is this intersection between political economy, hydrology, wastewater treatment, law and regulation that makes water such a rewarding research field.

You can find a list of Erin's current publications here.

Erin is an Early Career Academic Fellow in the Melbourne Law School.