A sea change: DFAT farewells senior water adviser Russell Rollason, instrumental in establishing AWP

A critical actor in establishing the Australian Water Partnership (AWP) has recently retired from his position within the Governance, Fragility and Water Branch of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

Russell Rollason was farewelled by colleagues from DFAT, AWP, eWater, the Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Meteorology, and CSIRO on 4 September at DFAT’s Canberra office after 14 years of working for DFAT and 46 years in the wider development sector.

“It is hard to say goodbye when you look at how much needs to be done to address injustice and inequality in the world, and, despite our best efforts, change is so slow,” reflected Rollason. “But I have valued the opportunity to contribute and it is time to move on and let the many inspired younger people taking up the reins to lead in new directions on the critical issues of water, climate change and development.”

Over his 14 years with DFAT and Australian Aid – previously known as AusAID – Rollason worked across international development programs in India, Vietnam and the wider Mekong region. DFAT’s Assistant Secretary of its Governance Fragility and Water Branch, Hannah Birdsey, spoke of Rollason’s outstanding contribution.

“Russell has consistently helped build understanding and support for the relevance and strategic importance of the water sector and identified opportunities for Australia to deploy its comparative advantage in the sector internationally, building our reputation and our influence,” said Birdsey.

Some of these opportunities involved strengthening Australia’s relationship with the Mekong River Commission – a relationship which endures today and is a strategic asset in engaging with countries in the region on management of a critical resource.

In 2006, Rollason worked on the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion Program. Then in 2008, he moved to the Public Sector Linkages Program and South Asia section where he briefed then Head of Mission for Delhi, Peter N Varghese AO, and former Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, Bob McMullan MP (now Chair of AWP’s Advisory Committee), about the state of water resources in South Asia and how Australia could play a larger part in addressing increasing water scarcity.

“He has been a friend and a source of principled advice for several decades,” said McMullan after hearing the news of Rollason’s retirement.

Russell Rollason visiting farmers living in the flood plains of the Mahanadi River delta in the eastern India state of Odisha as part of a UNDP project funded by then AusAID (Source: UNDP).

As the first Australian development officer posted to New Delhi in 2010 after a gap of several years, Rollason was responsible for growing the bilateral development assistance program to India. He was also instrumental in developing the South Asia regional collaboration on water resources management.

In 2013, Rollason returned to Australia to join DFAT’s environment section where he had the opportunity to refloat the idea of an Australian water centre that was first proposed by Don Blackmore AM. Then in 2015, he moved to the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene branch where he worked on establishing the AWP.

“Russell first pitched the idea of an Australian Water Partnership to the then-Secretary, Peter Varghese, and almost five years later it is now in its second phase, having brokered Australia’s sought-after water resources management expertise into many countries in our region as part of both our development and water diplomacy effort,” said Birdsey.

Also among Rollason’s career highlights was the opportunity to contribute to Australia’s participation on the High Level Panel on Water, co-convened by the United Nations and World Bank to champion a comprehensive, inclusive and collaborative way of developing and managing water resources, and improving water and sanitation-related services.

“It was a remarkable opportunity for Australia to show what it had learned surviving the Millennium Drought. We were the first country to face such severe water shortages. With climate change, we certainly will not be the last, and our experience is worth sharing,” said Rollason.

DFAT’s former Assistant Secretary of its Governance, Fragility and Water Branch, Michael Wilson, also expressed his thanks to Rollason.

“Russell has left a deep legacy on development policy and how Australia tackles water resource management as a development issue in particular. The AWP would not exist without Russell’s determination and his ability to build a powerful political constituency around an inspired idea,” said Wilson.

Rollason has acted as DFAT’s observer on the AWP Advisory Committee since its inception, and his ongoing support of the AWP and its vision will be missed.

“Russell’s input to the Committee and to championing AWP more broadly, have been invaluable to enhancing AWP’s reputation and impact,” said Prof Nick Schofield, AWP’s CEO.

Russell Rollason presenting at the AWP Partners Workshop in Brisbane (6–7 February 2019), themed How can the Australian water sector make a difference in the Indo-Pacific region.

Rollason concluded his farewell speech by thanking colleagues and acknowledging DFAT for the opportunity to specialise in water for so many years.

“The Prime Minister recently encouraged us to engage with the community…and I hope DFAT will continue to engage with the Australian water sector – public and private. We have a great opportunity to work with the water sector to share our water management expertise and help countries in our region and beyond to avoid water scarcity.”

Rollason will be moving with his wife Tracey and daughter Isabella to Newcastle where Tracey has been appointed as Priest for the Anglican Church in Charlestown.

Feature image: Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ms Frances Adamson, thanking Russell Rollason, recently retired, for his significant contribution to Australian efforts in international development and water resource management (16 September 2019, Source: DFAT).
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