Two major flood events in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales in February and March 2022 saw widespread flooding, damage to businesses, homes and loss of life in the area.
As a result of this terrible event, the Federal Government engaged us to undertake a project to understand flood risk factors in the region, identify flood mitigation options and help build resilience to possible future flood events.
Dr Jai Vaze leads this work for us and is a multiple award-winner in his field. He was awarded the Modelling and Simulation Society of Australia and New Zealand Biennial Medal in July 2023. This is the highest scientific honour awarded by the Society.
Jai’s contributions have also been recognised by the Australian Water Association with three Research Innovation Awards. He has been awarded multiple annual CSIRO awards including the Chair’s Medal, which he has won twice.
We spoke to Jai about his work and his other passions.
What inspired you to become a hydrologist?
I grew up in rural setting and as a child I enjoyed playing outside in the rain and mud. I was always intrigued by the water cycle and watched with curiosity how streams were formed after heavy rains and how the landscape totally changed with every rain event. I think this is what inspired me to be a hydrologist.
What led to the extreme flood event in the Northern Rivers in 2022?
In February and March 2022, the highest rainfall totals on record occurred in most parts of Richmond, Tweed and Brunswick. Conditions were already significantly wetter than average when this happened. Major flood levels were exceeded by more than two metres in several locations.
In the town of Lismore the flood reached 14.37 metres. This was 4.67 metres above the major flood level of 9.7 metres. As the terrain upstream of Lismore is steep, the floods were extremely fast moving in these areas.
Are you confident we can ‘flood proof’ this community against a repeat of the 2022 flood?
It is almost impossible to flood proof a region like the Northern Rivers, especially under a changing climate where we expect to see more extreme weather events. But we are confident we can reduce the impact of flooding and the associated damage significantly by undertaking detailed modelling based on high quality data. The mitigation scenarios tested using the models will provide insights into what is possible.
What’s next for our work in this region?
Our science helped analyse $150 million worth of government-funded flood mitigation projects for the Northern Rivers.
We now continue to conduct our detailed modelling work until the end of 2024. This second phase will generate high-quality digital elevation datasets, using aircraft, for the Northern Rivers region. We are also using boats to help collect bathymetry (information on the cross sections of the river network) for the Richmond and Tweed rivers.
The main objective is to build a detailed hydrodynamic model for the entire Richmond River Catchment. The data and model will be used to undertake scenario analysis to recommend long term flood mitigation actions. We will also examine and evaluate possible future flood events, drawing on local knowledge and expertise on the catchment and flooding.
What is your career highlight so far?
I have been extremely lucky to be supervised by the best mentors throughout my life. I graduated with my bachelor's degree in India, obtained my master's in Ireland, and was awarded my PhD in Melbourne. I am really grateful to my supervisors and my colleagues who have helped me become a better scientist and, more importantly, a better human being.
In this journey, I have made lifelong friends – not all of them scientists. I am trying to share what others have given me over my journey with the people I mentor and my students.
I am a 'student for life' and I learn a lot from them every time we discuss something. I also feel lucky to be working with CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, where we address large scale problems and provide practical solutions for the good of the community.
Outside of work, what do you enjoy?
I really enjoy sports, but nowadays it’s more watching than playing. I also enjoy gardening and find it the best therapy for stress relief.
I like travelling and have been to many remote parts of Australia (I love nature, not concrete) and many countries across the globe over years. I have completed the Everest base camp and few other peaks in India and Nepal.