Q&A

The Role of Environmental Human Rights in the Warragamba Dam Wall Raising Proposal

How does access to information around environmental decision-making impact communities? We hear from 2022 Honours Fellow Olivia Mulligan about her research into public participation in the Warragamba Dam Wall Raising Proposal.

Warragamba dam of Sydney Water supply infrastructure on Nepean river forming fresh water lake between gum-tree woods by Taras Vyshnya via Shutterstock, ID: 1512858980.
Warragamba dam of Sydney Water supply infrastructure on Nepean river forming fresh water lake between gum-tree woods by Taras Vyshnya via Shutterstock, ID: 1512858980.

Emma Holland: What are you researching for Honours? 

Olivia Mulligan: I’m researching access to information about the Warragamba Dam Wall Raising Proposal. My aim is to measure the public’s access to information against the standard of access set by Pillar 1 (“Access to information”) of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (also known as the Aarhus Convention), which came into force in 2001. The Convention aims to establish rights for the public in relation to environmental issues.  

The proposal by the NSW Government to raise the Warragamba Dam Wall is particularly contentious due to disagreements as to whether it will effectively mitigate flooding, and over concerns that its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) overlooked ecological and cultural impacts. I hope to understand the role that access to information has had in this controversy by interviewing individuals about their knowledge of the issue and their experience accessing information about the project. The interviews will be conducted with members of the public who speak English as a second language, and who reside in either the Blue Mountains or Hawkesbury LGAs. I also plan to analyse the public’s submissions in response to the project’s EIS on the NSW Department of Planning and the Environment’s online portal. 

The proposal by the NSW Government to raise the Warragamba Dam Wall is particularly contentious due to disagreements as to whether it will effectively mitigate flooding, and over concerns that its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) overlooked ecological and cultural impacts. I hope to understand the role that access to information has had in this controversy by interviewing individuals about their knowledge of the issue and their experience accessing information about the project.”

What is your academic background and what was the inspiration behind your Honours project? 

I’ve completed a double major in Italian Studies and Environmental Studies as part of my Bachelor of Arts. As an Environmental Studies student, I’ve enjoyed learning about themes in environmental politics, law and ethics – particularly concepts regarding environmental justice and ways of achieving justice in practice such as by establishing environmental human rights. In addition, learning a different language and culture has taught me how cultural and linguistic difficulties can be a barrier to adequately understanding and ‘accessing’ information about an issue. I’m also a Blue Mountains local, and have keenly followed this issue over the past couple of years as it has unfolded in the media and in my local community. 

“Learning a different language and culture has taught me how cultural and linguistic difficulties can be a barrier to adequately understanding and ‘accessing’ information about an issue.”

What do you hope this research will contribute to society and its future? 

Since very few countries, including Australia (who is not yet a signatory to the Aarhus Convention), have embedded substantive and procedural environmental human rights into legislation, applying principles of the agreements that do exist to different socio-cultural contexts might help understand if ratifying would potentially facilitate public participation in environmental decision-making in these communities. I hope that research into environmental human rights continues to expand and provide a practical foundation for decisions made by authorities to better reflect the diverse values and conceptions of the environment. 

Why were you interested in applying for an Honours Fellowship with the Sydney Environment Institute?   

I am drawn to the SEI’s focus on multidisciplinary thinking. I remember being particularly inspired by Dalia Nassar’s Essay from SEI’s 2021 Iain McCalman lecture on Shallow and Deep Collaboration: Art, Ecology and Alexander von Humboldt. In the essay, she argues that reuniting the Arts and Science disciplines for environmental research recognises the ‘porous’ boundary between knowing about environments and experiencing environments in everyday life. I love how SEI encourages the collection of diverse ways of thinking; both in connection with other disciplines and within society to help create new strategies for addressing environmental issues. 

Aside from research, what are your passions and interests? 

In my free time, I like to go on bushwalking or hiking adventures with friends. There are a few tracks close to home that I walk regularly but I also love exploring Sydney’s coastal and harbour walks – especially at sunset. One of my favourites at the moment is the Rose Bay to Watson’s Bay coastal walk. It is a peaceful ferry ride to get there, and the view of the harbour along the walk is always stunning. 


Olivia Mulligan is a 2022 Honours research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. She has a bachelor’s degree in Arts and Social Sciences, majoring in Environmental Studies and Italian Studies from the University of Sydney and is currently undertaking Honours in the School of Geosciences (Faculty of Science). Olivia’s research aims to measure the public’s access to information about the Warragamba Dam Raising Proposal using the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters.