When Jan Kreibich first read about a multidisciplinary PhD project bringing environmental and cultural values together on the Gayini (Nimmie-Caira) Wetlands, he knew that it would be the perfect fit.

It was 2019 and he had just recently completed an Erasmus Mundus Joint Master of Science in Groundwater and Global Change, delivered by UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, Delft, Netherlands; Instituto Superior Técnico, Lisbon, Portugal; and TU Dresden, Germany. He already had an interest in stream restoration from his degree in Science (Ecosystem Management), after which he spent time working in the USA investigating nutrient release from floodplains and the impacts of the drought on local ecosystems.

Jan said, “The Gayini project caught my attention as it combined my previous studies and research experiences in ecology, hydrology and climate change with yet another important but far too often neglected aspect – people!”

The Gayini Wetlands is a large freshwater ecosystem on the Lower Murrumbidgee River Floodplain in the Murray-Darling Basin in south-eastern Australia. It is recognised as a nationally important wetland (ANCA, 1996), however, at least 76 % of the floodplain has been destroyed or degraded due to extensive river regulation and water diversions for irrigation agriculture over more than 150 years (Kingsford and Thomas, 2004). This has not only impacted ecosystems in the system, but also the Traditional Custodians of the land, the Nari Nari People.

Jan is a UNSW Sydney Scientia PhD Candidate in Environmental Management with specialisation in large-scale river and wetlands restoration. He is part of a research team that investigates the changes in river flow and inundation patterns—including impacts on wetland ecology—in relation to river regulation and predicted climate change. His research also focuses on the significance of freshwater ecosystems to the Nari Nari People, integrating traditional knowledge and cultural values into land and water management.

“We aim to bring environmental and cultural values together, developing a holistic Strategic Adaptive Management Plan for restoring the Gayini Wetlands and creating a healthy habitat for vegetation, wildlife – and people,” says Jan.

Jan’s research is supervised by Professor Richard Kingsford (Centre for Ecosystem Science - CES) and Associate Professor William Glamore (Water Research Laboratory). His secondary supervisor is Dr Margaret Raven (Social Policy Research Centre); and co-supervisors are Dr Gilad Bino (CES), Dr Kate Brandis (CES) and Dr James Fitzsimons (The Nature Conservancy Australia).

Jan and his colleagues collaborate  closely with the Gayini Project consortium members, including the Nari Nari Tribal CouncilThe Nature Conservancy and the Murray Darling Wetlands Working Group. Together they have an important goal: to reverse the damage that the Gayini Wetlands has suffered over many decades due to unsustainable water diversions from the Murrumbidgee River.

“To reach this goal, we aim to determine how the natural flooding patterns can be restored by delivering the right amount of environmental water to the wetlands during the right time of the year,” says Jan. 

Humans are a part of nature and as such we need to include them – us – in our restoration efforts and learn how to live with other living-beings in harmony and avoid being the destructive forces we have become far too often
Jan Kreibich
UNSW Sydney Scientia PhD Candidate

However, we do not only focus on environmental but on social and cultural values as well. Humans are a part of nature and as such we need to include them – us – in our restoration efforts and learn how to live with other living-beings in harmony and avoid being the destructive forces we have become far too often.”

Jan arrived in Sydney for the first time on 30 November 2021 after spending more than a year as an external PhD candidate due to the pandemic. He says he is thrilled to begin exploring and discovering the city, his study area and the unique Australian flora and fauna.

He is grateful for the Scientia Scholarship opportunity, saying, “Sydney is a vibrant city of international significance, UNSW offers an excellent research environment, my supervisors and colleagues are highly supportive, motivated and knowledgeable—and my PhD project is of almost unlimited potential.”

“The Scientia Scholarship with its generous career development funds offers amazing opportunities for continuing education that I would not have had anywhere else. The scholarship paid for my Spanish lessons with a private tutor or a yearlong certificate program on ecosystem restoration at the Yale School of the Environment. What more could I ask for?”

After Jan has completed his PhD he plans to continue working on ecosystem restoration—possibly in academia or as an engineer working on the ground.

“There are tens of thousands of studies today that show the devastating effects many of our actions have on our environment and climate; and we need to act now to combat environmental degradation and anthropogenic climate change,” says Jan.

“Whether it is in Australia, Panama, Namibia, Antarctica or anywhere else in the world, I don’t mind where I work. As long as the projects are meaningful and plenty of fieldwork is involved, I am happy,” says Jan.