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Dr Juan Castilla

In Chile’s Atacama Desert, Dr Juan Castilla is helping miners, farmers, water companies and environmentalists resolve their competing interests. His approach could solve other issues where self-interest conflicts with the common good, including climate change.

H ere’s a puzzle for you: if you want to create a tipping point to make a universal rule, how many people do you need to convince?

If, for example, you wanted most people to observe the speed limit … or convert to sustainable use for water in one of the driest areas on the planet? Intuition may tell you that you’d need to persuade an overwhelming majority of people to obey any given rule – let’s say 80 per cent of any given population.

Or perhaps, thinking on, that figure may be a simple majority, 50 per cent. What if – as Dr Juan Castilla would argue – the real figure for a tipping point is 20 per cent?

“When you start building these simple rules, some people call them gut feelings, fast and frugal ways of making decisions, you start seeing universal behaviours like tipping points,” he says.

“We have found that if 20 per cent of the people follow the rules imposed by government, just by imitation everybody else starts following.”

The driest area on Earth

Dr Castilla is working in what has to be one of the most challenging spaces possible. He has just returned from running a workshop, trying to bring together stakeholders in the Copiapo Basin, the equivalent of the Murray-Darling Basin in his native Chile.

This is an area where it hasn’t rained in more than 500 years. It sits in the rain shadow of the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean’s Humboldt Current to the west.

Yet it’s an incredibly fertile valley fed by snowmelt from the Andes, with the perfect growing climate that allows crops to ripen earlier than in the rest of the country and reach lucrative North American and European markets first, and so is crucial to the nation’s economy.

In addition, the valley contains mines that use water and bacteria that create ponds in the middle of the desert that are very sensitive to any changes in groundwater levels.

Dr Juan Castilla

Dr Juan Castilla Photo: Paul Jones

Competing interests

“The problem here is that mining companies, drinking water companies and farmers are all pumping from the same aquifers,” Dr Castilla says.

“Back in the Pinochet period there was a strong drive towards free markets and the rights to the water were given to the people. The laws were designed so they had freedom to buy, sell and speculate with water rights. In principle it’s a good idea but created lots of problems in practice.

“Now the government doesn’t have any control with what happens with water. So now they have over-allocated water. In the basin where we are working, they have allocated four times the amount of water that is naturally replenished by rainfall and snowmelt.”

Here’s the issue: without recourse to the law, how is it possible to persuade these competing users to forgo self-interest and work instead for the common good?

In the basin where we are working, they have allocated four times the amount of water that is naturally replenished by rainfall and snowmelt.

Dr Juan Castilla

It’s an issue that affects climate change action the world over, and therefore is an issue of primary importance. Solving this issue is about saving the planet.

Dr Castilla studied water engineering at Santiago before moving to the Atacama Desert to work as an environmental officer for the Chilean Government. He then crossed the fence, worked for companies extracting water from deep aquifers, and later set himself up as a consultant. He then went full circle and moved back to academia.

He’s seen it from all sides. “That gave me a nice view of the system, of the different actors and how they have different types of information but also how they can’t agree on the right solution,” he said.

Simultaneously, he became interested in the gap between scientific discovery and the knowledge in use in the real world.

“I realised that the methods being applied in the real world are 10 years behind what’s being done in academia,” he says. “I decided to go back to academia to do something about that.”

Models that mimic the world

Almost a decade later, he has arrived at the SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong – an organisation that prides itself on its interface between academia and practical solutions for government and the private sector.

Dr Castilla has developed the idea of building what he calls “management flight simulators”, or software that allows people to understand the systems they inhabit, giving those affected the necessary knowledge and tools to choose their own future.

“The models that governments and consulting companies use tend to focus on how water moves from one place to another,” he says. “They tend to abstract anything that has to do with humans, how humans make decisions and how governments make policies.”

There is no point doing good science if we don’t put it in a form that the people who need it can actually use it. My message is that change is possible.

Dr Juan Castilla

By contrast, Dr Castilla has developed agent-based modelling, building an artificial society that represents real interactions and decision-making rules that mimic those used by real people in the real work. In this case, in the Copiapo Basin.

“We build these artificial societies and we couple them with hydrological models,” he says. “Then we can build little simulations of the real world without having to simplify anything.

“These agents can be government agencies, they could be mining companies, they could be the drinking water company building new bores to satisfy the needs of a growing population, farmers, environmentalists, an NGO pushing towards the conservation of a wetland.

“They could be anything.”

And this is what Dr Castilla brought to his workshop with key stakeholders and what he believes will be the key to unlocking change.

Competing interests: the complexity of mapping water use needs for various groups. Graphic: Juan Castilla

Building a working model

First, he sits down with each of the stakeholders and talks to them about how they make their decisions, what factors affect their water use, and then he builds these into his model.

“The objective here is not predicting,” he says. “The goal is to help people see how things work – if I do this, this is probably going to happen. It’s an exploratory approach.”

This model allows people to see what happens when their behaviour does not change, when it changes, if a dam is built, if the farmers plant crops that use less water, if the mines expand their operations, or if they contract.

The goal is to help people see how things work ... it’s an exploratory approach. We finally had a way to discuss these things that was not in a report, on a piece of paper or in a PowerPoint presentation.

Dr Juan Castilla

“There is distrust and no co-operation because the competing interests haven’t had the opportunity to sit together and understand the problem holistically. A space where all their interests are taken into consideration,” he says.

“We have gone to Chile a number of times and they say this is the first instance that allows them to talk and see the situation in a transparent way, without the technical jargon. They are engaged.”

When Dr Castilla first presented his management flight simulator in the Copiapo Basin earlier this year, he faced a hostile crowd.

“When I put the prototype up it blew their minds that they can increase the rainfall, change the pumping of a mining company, simulate the construction of a dam,” he says. “They could see the impacts of those things – we finally had a way to discuss these things that was not in a report, on a piece of paper or in a PowerPoint presentation.”

Change we can believe in

The really exciting aspect of this research is that its applications go far beyond water usage in the Atacama Desert. They can be used anywhere that complex scientific modelling needs to be used by people who can effect change in the world.

The technique is already being considered for the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia, but it could be used to create co-operation out of almost any conflict situation with competing interests, from traffic infrastructure issues such as WestConnex in Sydney to agriculture, mining, air pollution, noise pollution, coal seam gas, bushfires and even climate change.

“In the end, it’s all about people,” Dr Castilla says. “There is no point doing good science if we don’t put it in a form that the people who need it can actually use it. We cannot predict the future – we only have to look at weather models to see that – but we can build models to show trends.

“My message is that change is possible.”

Banner image: Valle de Copiapó by Camila Gallo G / Flickr

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