Robert (Bob) Wasson

Executive Committee (Adjunct Professor, James Cook University, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Emeritus Professor, Australian National University)

Professor Wasson is a geomorphologist with 40 years of experience in natural resource management in Australia, New Zealand and ten Asian countries. He is known for his expertise in catchment processes and management, sediment and nutrient budgeting, assessment of the ‘reality’ of catchment model outputs, extreme flood hydrology and its geomorphic expression, and the impact on fluvial systems of climate variability and change.

His previous appointments include Visiting Professor, Department of Geography, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and Principal Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, all at the National University of Singapore. In Australia he was Deputy Vice Chancellor Research and International, Charles Darwin University, and Professor and Director, Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Professor and Head, Department of Geography and Human Ecology, and Dean of Science, all at the Australian National University (ANU). Prior to that he was Senior Principal Research Scientist, Program Leader, Assistant Chief, CSIRO Division of Water Resources, Research Fellow, Department of Biogeography and Geomorphology, ANU, and Visiting Scientist, Physical Research Laboratory, India, Lecturer in Geomorphology, Geography Department, Monash University, and Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Geography, Auckland University, New Zealand.

He has performed research into natural hazards in New Zealand, India, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and northern Australia. His focus has been on landslides, mudflows, floods, and sedimentation in aquatic ecosystems after intense rain following bushfires in water supply catchments using mixed methods including documentary sources and the approaches of the earth sciences. The objectives of the research on floods has been to reconstruct long records of extreme events for more accurate estimates of probabilities, as input to risk assessments, and to test standard methods of flood frequency analysis. The main output of the research into sedimentation following  bushfires is a more robust estimate of the probability of such event based on data from several millennia.

In addition he has been engaged with Indian colleagues in analysis of histories, causes and impacts of large floods, landslides and mudflows in the Himalaya, specifically in Ladakh, Garhwal, and Assam. While a lot of effort has been put into constructing histories an equal amount has been expended in assessing existing mitigation strategies by analysing time series of death and destruction in relation to flood embankment construction in particular. Current collaborative research involves a comparison of flood damage in six Indian states with a view to identifying differences of causation and implications for mitigation.

He has made available to a wide audience in the environmental disaster field  the importance of solar storms by review not primary research. While focusing on the impact of solar storms on electricity generation for water treatment, there are many parts of the modern world that are vulnerable to these rare but potentially catastrophic events. Examples include communication systems, GPS, health services, banking services, food supply, and every business that uses a form of electronic payment.

He is now collaborating with the Environmental Research Institute for the Supervising Scientist in the final design of a landform to contain the wastes from a uranium mine in the Northern Territory. Given that the landform has to last for 10,000 years it is essential that the magnitudes of the most extreme rainfall and floods are estimated, a task being approached by analysing the remains of extreme floods recorded geomorphically  and from which rainfall extremes are estimated from hydroclimatic theory linked to the records of extreme floods.

He is also creating  the beginnings of a theory of environmental disasters. There are currently many hypotheses and some nascent theories about parts of the environmental disaster domain but nothing that is all-encompassing. Theory is urgently needed as empirical studies cannot be carried out in all locations where disasters occur. Sufficient resources simply do not exist. This idea is being explored with colleagues at the National University of Singapore.

For much of his career Professor Wasson has worked at the interface of scientific research and policy formulation. He can demonstrate influence in Australia on natural resource management, and in Timor-Leste and to a lesser extent India on flood mitigation strategy. Efforts continue in Thailand to affect flood mitigation policy. His approach is usually more holistic than that adopted by government agencies but often equal to the worldviews of local people as demonstrated particularly in semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions in Timor-Leste. More formal holism is now a matter for urgent research and promulgation in policy by using the methods of system dynamics. This approach is actively being applied to flood mitigation in the Brahmaputra River catchment in northeast India.