The intersection of science communication, and water makes a lot of sense. In Tanya Ha, she has forged a high-profile path in sustainability and water conservation with Science and Technology Australia and Westernport Water.
Tanya Ha describes herself as an award-winning strategic science and environmental communicator and leader. She has 20 years of experience making complex subjects engaging and accessible to mainstream audiences. Ha is a regular among science and sustainability media and a communication and behaviour change consultant. She was a climate change delegate to the Australia 2020 Summit.
Being committed to a healthier and better Australia, Ha has been inspired by her daughter’s description of con-creeks – concrete creeks that funnel water through the landscape. The idea to remove them and resume the rewilding of these areas is just one way Ha is working to improve Victoria’s waterways.
Tanya Ha is a Chinese-Australian who spent time exploring much the same way as other Australian kids – climbing trees and experimenting by accident. Thinking back on her childhood, she did not know what she wanted to do when she grew up until she started doing it.
“Like a good Chinese girl through school, I would study medicine just like my father wanted. It was not until I started to fill out university application forms that I realised that if I studied medicine, I would become a doctor like my father. I panicked because I did not want to become a doctor. I put down physiotherapy at first,” said Ha.
Ha was born in Melbourne and moved to Adelaide with her family when she was eleven. Ha believes that living in Adelaide gave her an intense passion for the Murray Darling River, an acute awareness of water security issues, and a familiarity with water tanks.
Moving back to Melbourne and a unique career path
“I met a cute boy living in Melbourne and figured it was easy to change state and courses easily. It turns out – that is not the case! I found myself in a chemistry degree but was only interested in it. After I finished it, I completed a graduate certificate in scientific and technical writing,” said Ha.
Ha admits that her career has not followed any traditional pathways. She has spent time with Planet Ark, been a presenter for Catalyst, and was the Vice President of Science & Technology Australia. She is now a science and environmental communication consultant at Science in Public and a director at Westernport Water.
“One thing that we discovered with Planet Ark is that they weren’t communicating well with women in their discussions of sustainable living. They had famous Australian environmentalists, but they were all men. Women would not listen to men about the type of sustainable nappies or green cleaners they should use at home. I had found a niche where I could promote something that I believed in and made a difference in people’s lives,” said Ha.
How women think about sustainability
As part of her Master’s degree research, Tanya Ha investigated how women change their behaviour in response to becoming a mother. Her data came from two government reports – the Green Light Report from Sustainability Victoria and the Who Cares about the Government Report from the New South Wales Government.
“In looking at that data, I extracted the data specifically around women. The literature indicated that women made most decisions around water and energy use. Anecdotally, I had noticed that my friends without kids tended to ignore this environmental stuff I ranted about. However, as soon as they had kids, there was a complete flip. They would ask all these questions about recycled content and phosphate-free laundry powders. That drove the idea behind children being agents of change,” said Ha.
Once Ha looked at the data, she could see some correlations between having children and a different attitude towards waste and recycling. Equally, there were some areas where there were no changes or no correlations.
“The thing that I noticed after conducting interviews with mothers was that their behavioural change was not framed around environmental sustainability. The consciousness around water and energy saving was about making ends meet for the family and making the home healthier. This family-oriented thinking was not specifically about the environment as such, but rather about providing a better life for their children,” said Ha.
Nappies vs washing machines
The most immediate and vexing issue for mothers is around nappy and washing machine selection. Tanya Ha pointed out that women are very defensive about the type of nappies they use for their children.
“In real terms, there is very little difference between disposable and washable nappies,” said Ha.
However, there is a fundamental understanding of washing machines. From her interviews, Ha learned that mothers always felt like they were in the laundry.
“Washing is probably one of the biggest things they do. They would say that everything gets dirty and are always in the laundry. They develop an awareness of how much laundry they are doing. It leads to understanding how much the washing machine uses water and energy. They start thinking about that in conjunction with their convenience and sanity before reassessing the right sort of washing machine,” said Ha.
With front-loading washing machines being more water and energy-efficient than top loaders, mothers become hyper-aware of the impact on their families.
Inconsistency and messaging
Tanya Ha noted that mothers’ green tendencies were patchy and inconsistent, tending towards teal once they have children. As such, they are not truly pro-environmentalists.
“Understanding this point is key to promoting the right messaging to new mothers. The message is not around saving water, but about how to make your home healthier for you and your family,” said Ha.
Therefore, understanding why mothers do what they do when it comes to household decisions. That also flows through to the information received by their children through education and awareness campaigns.
Involving children in reducing the water bill
While she acknowledged mothers’ behavioural change, Ha also noticed how geographically focused mothers are. They are making hyper-local decisions due to the circles that they would travel in. It is truer once their children enter school because they come back from school after learning new things.
“One of my suggestions to parents is to deputise their kids to be the eco-police of the house. You can give them water pistols to squirt you if you are in the shower for too long or do not turn a tap off. Kids are excellent at nagging and love telling their parents off if they are seen to be doing something wrong,” said Ha.
Ha suggests working with the children to understand water consumption. She believes in helping them know the volume of water used instead of the bill’s cost. “If the water bill drops, the children would get the difference as additional pocket money. The children then become acutely aware of water use,” said Ha. “The kids will be looking around, making sure that the taps are off, asking why sprinklers are on at certain times, that sort of thing.”
Tanya Ha believes her role is more of an advisory and strategic position as a government-appointed director. Westernport Water is a highly community-connected organisation, and with that, the team brings ideas for the board to poke and pick at.
“One thing I am incredibly excited about is a teal carbon project within the Greater Metropolitan Melbourne Integrated Water Management Forums,” said Ha. “It looks at how we reuse water instead of emptying it straight into Port Phillip Bay. We would rather use the water to irrigate, grow and rehabilitate areas with the right kind of species. That would lock in carbon and create a habitat for animals and flora in conjunction with Phillip Island Nature Parks.”
Ha explained that there is a benefit to understanding how carbon and water can be used to support the ecosystem. It can save water authorities and local municipalities from building concrete infrastructure that would otherwise use carbon. She described it as teal infrastructure as it saves money, abates carbon, provides biodiversity benefits, and is supported by the community.
Other sustainability projects
Westernport Water is also collaborating with the Blue Carbon Lab at Deakin University on the Floating Wetlands project. The opportunity to develop scalable and adaptable outcomes is extremely valuable as a nature-based solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from wastewater.
“One area that I would like to see more research on is how Australia’s ecosystems store carbon differently. We know the mangroves in the Gulf Carpentaria store huge amounts of carbon,” said Ha. “However, if we study the literature, we read far more about the Amazon rainforest. We need to know more about our ecosystems in Australia to ensure that we have the solutions that will support our climate and provide benefits.”
One of the challenges around sustainability is making it irresistible, according to Greenfleet Chair Dr Dominique Hes. Ha believes it is true, and people need to be shown a future around sustainability that they can get excited about.
“I don’t believe future cities will like those in Blade Runner or Mad Max. I think they will look more like Hobbiton. There’s a blur between urban and rural because greening cities is so beneficial for water management, urban cooling and preventing flooding,” said Ha.
Encouraging women in water and science
The managing director of Westernport Water is Dona Tantirimudalige. Having held the position for two years now, Tanya Ha believes that Tantirimudalige has been an excellent fit and a strong, vibrant role model for women.
“We have improved many of our diversity targets at Westernport Water. It’s not just Westernport Water, but broadly the whole water sector has been working hard on its gender equity. However, they are starting to work on programs around women of colour and intersectionality. That diverse approach to diversity is important,” said Ha.
She noted that having Rueben Berg as the Chair has been key. Berg is a Gunditjmara man and the first indigenous person to be appointed to the board of a water corporation in Victoria. He is also a Member of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, a founder of Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria and a founder and director of the Indigenous Ultimate Association.
“Berg’s appointment represents how the organisations are more supportive and looking at board members and staff from different perspectives,” said Ha. She reflected on her times as a Vice President of Science and Technology Australia and a Director of the Diversity Council Australia, noting that society is moving forward to incorporate more women and people of colour into different aspects of life.
More than half of the board members at Westernport Water are female. Ha commented that gender equity is starting to balance out because of that leadership from the top.
“While there is still work to do, particularly in engineering roles, we are told that women are happy to have us in these leadership roles. The opportunity to progress is available to all candidates and sends a strong signal.
Ellen Swallow Richards
Many people have a scientific idol to whom they aspire to replicate or come close to representing. For Tanya Ha, that is sanitation expert, analytical chemist, and pioneering ecofeminist Ellen Swallow Richards.
Ha explained her love for Richards by talking about Richards’ passion for science and engineering. “She was passionate about her work and did it with so much joy, enthusiasm, curiosity, and excitement, against opposition. She would have had the first postgraduate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but they felt that the honour could not go to a woman,” said Ha.
Her Vassar College for Women astronomy professor Maria Mitchell told Richards, “You will make valuable discoveries in the course of your life,” and “Do not spend your pocket money on trivialities. Save up and buy a really good telescope.”
Richards was the only child of two teachers who firmly believed in the value of education. Critical of the standards of the local village school, they taught her themselves on the family farm. Ha found that the combination of home-schooling and growing up on the land led Richards to certain skills and knowledge that she may not have otherwise known, particularly around safe drinking water and sanitation.
Why Ellen Swallow Richards is so important
“When she got to college and university, Richards learned the science behind safe drinking water and sanitation,” said Ha. “When she would go to the equivalent of housewarming parties for her friends, Richards would first go to their water supplies to see how safe they were. She had really practical advice,” said Ha.
In thinking about herself and her role in life, Ha can see how women’s duties in science have found themselves in what is broadly called “domestic sciences.” They tend to include family sanitation, food hygiene and similar health issues. While that has now been called home economics, what is called home economics is very far from what domestic sciences were, certainly in the eyes of Richards.
Ha also believes that science inspires curiosity, which is critical for any individual. “My science education taught me how to read the instructions on medicine, sort the crap from the credible, fact check information, and what to do if my daughter reacts to something she has eaten,” said Ha.
Local science hero
When asked about an Australian science hero, Tanya Ha pointed to former chair of the Environmental Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) Cheryl Batagol PSM.
“I think she’s just wonderful. I don’t know if you’d call her a scientist, but she has a brain for understanding things,” said Ha. “She describes herself as a garbo from way back, given her strong waste and recycling background. However, she just grew through her government and governance career in the water sector.”
Batagol has been a wonderful mentor for Ha while being collaborative and passionate about supporting women in water as they grow their careers. “One of the things I love about Batagol is that she loves to listen to people. I remember her going to the 2020 summit in 2008. She talked with a delegate who had an idea about bike sheds. A school mum had an idea for bike sheds to encourage active transport. Batagol was giving really good advice to someone, and it showed that she loved to talk and listen to everyone. Being able to talk and listen to anyone is an important skill,” said Ha.
Importance of Batagol’s goals to Ha
Water-sensitive cities and sustainable buildings are areas that both Ha and Batagol are extremely passionate about. Ha pointed out that many of the world’s emissions are locked into buildings and building materials. The design of buildings influences the flow of rainwater onto the street and into the drains instead of soaking into the soil.
“I’ve always been interested in precinct-level planning because no one seemed to be thinking at that scale,” said Ha. “We’ve seen increasing density across Melbourne and Adelaide, away from the house taking up about 30 per cent of the block. We are now in situations where people no longer live on quarter-acre blocks. We have seen people moving into multi-level townhouses, which cover 90 per cent of the block. It has resulted in areas of both cities becoming prone to flash flooding.”
Flash flooding in Adelaide is particularly surprising, given that it is a dry city. That is the way that the people think and have built their homes. They must now think differently about how they build houses in the future.
Removing con-creeks and the greening of Melbourne
When walking around with her daughter, Tanya Ha recalled that she called the concrete creeks made in the past “con-creeks.” Using that name has helped her think about ways to remove the concrete, given the volume of carbon built into it.
“That is one of the things I have noticed in the last thirty years,” said Ha. “Since I moved back to Melbourne in the 90s, I started to see the rewilding of some creeks and waterways. I also saw the widening of Swanston Street and adding trees to the CBD. It looks different, and I didn’t really notice when it happened. However, after being away for a while, it looks different.”
Ha’s first story for Catalyst was about green roofs for adapting to climate change. She noted that people are now adjusting to the urban forest, having parks and access to green spaces.
“We must be more water sensitive. We need cities that are more resilient to climate change, beautiful to live in, and greener. I get so excited by this prospect.”