New paper proposes medical approach to river health

Cawthron Institute Freshwater Group Manager Dr Roger Young has published a paper advising there is much to be learned from the medical practice when considering ecosystem management. 

“This paper draws parallels between managing and improving human wellbeing, and the way we should approach river health.

“Medical science and practice has developed over millennia. The framework used to diagnose, treat, monitor, and prevent disease provides an excellent template for river management,” said Dr Young.

River Doctor infographic

In the paper River doctors: Learning from medicine to improve ecosystem management it’s recommended ‘river doctors’ first gather information about a river, provide a diagnosis, apply treatment, follow up with regular monitoring and recommend prevention based on what has been learned.

According to Dr Young, this approach would be a significant improvement on current ecosystem management. 

“New Zealand rivers would certainly benefit from better diagnostics and monitoring. Currently we know when something is wrong with a river, but it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly, and there’s very little post-treatment monitoring, so it’s hard to know what is and isn’t working.

“We should also take into account the importance of technology. The medical profession makes use of the latest technology and at Cawthron we’re applying new tools, such as environmental DNA and drones, to river management.

“We need more of this, combined with good environmental education, to reduce the risk of river illness,” said Dr Young.


Dr Roger Young educating people on river health at Cawthron Open Day 2017

The paper is the result of an international collaboration between Prof. Arturo Elosegi from Spain, Prof. Mark Gessner from Germany, and Dr Roger Young from New Zealand.

Dr Young said the freshwater ecologists spent a week working together at the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Germany. Here they workshopped the idea that the medical profession’s approach to human health could hold the key to understanding and improving ecosystem condition.

“As a freshwater scientist, I’ve been encouraged by the public interest in New Zealand’s rivers. This interest is important, because it will take a combined community effort to improve our river health,” said Dr Young.

Roger Young talks about the future of freshwater science

This work was partially funded by the NIWA-led rehabilitation of aquatic ecosystems programme, funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Cawthron Institute provides world-class freshwater science with expertise in river health assessment, catchment management, and water quality.