A chance meeting in the Riverina town of Narrandera was the turning point for Professor Lee Baumgartner, which led him on the path to his important work in developing countries where food security for millions of people is under threat. Since 2015, the Albury-based professor has dedicated himself to improving river management in Australia, particularly in the Murray Darling Basin, which has significantly benefited farming communities in NSW. His research was recently recognised when Professor Baumgartner was awarded the inaugural NSW Crawford Fund Medal for outstanding service. The fisheries and river management professor at Charles Stuart University, Wagga Wagga, spent the first 16 years of his career working for NSW DPI before transferring to the university in 2014. Professor Baumgartner's research focuses on innovative technology (fishways) to increase fisheries production. These fishways, also known as fish passages, are like stairs that enable fish to move more freely where there are obstructions such as weirs and flood control gates. In some developing countries, river development has led to large-scale fish declines by blocking fish migration routes. His work benefits thousands of villages and more than 80,000 families in the Lower Mekong region, where healthy fisheries co-exist with irrigation expansion in these rice-growing countries. "People ask me how I got into international development as a career," Professor Baumgartner said. "I was living in Narrandera, and in 2005, I was married. The marriage celebrant asked me what I did, and I said, 'I work with fish'. "She replied, my son-in-law is a big wig at the Mekong River Commission." It turned out to be Dr Chris Barlow, the chief technical advisor of the Mekong River Commission Fisheries Program at the time. Following that meeting, three weeks later, Professor Baumgartner found himself at the Mekong River Commission headquarters talking to the heads of fisheries departments about why they should consider a fish ladder program. "At that stage, they hadn't built one in the program; I had just overseen a NSW program that had seen the reconnection of the Murray River for the first time," he said. "That led to the Mekong's first ever fish ladder that was made from timber, which a flood washed away, then we made it from steel, and it rusted, then we made the third one out of concrete, and it has passed more than 150 species of fish and that has led to a program of work that has reconnected thousands of kilometres of rivers. "If you look at that in monetary terms, five people per family in the Mekong and 80,000 families, that's about 500,000 people directly. "You've invested about $10 million - that works out to $20 per person - it's incredibly good value to give someone a source of food and micronutrients for the rest of their life." Every overseas research project had to return defined benefits for NSW and Australia. "I can safely say the work we did did just that, and it was two-way," Professor Baumgartner said. "We were taking the technology for fish ladders to South-East Asia, and then we were learning about the fish in South-East Asia, bringing that knowledge back to NSW and building better fish ladders. "That has led to a 20-year program NSW DPI now oversees." Professor Baumgartner has long been associated with the Crawford Fund, having led seven Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) projects. The Crawford Fund has supported his work with fisheries and irrigation master classes, training and instructional videos. His classes have been delivered in seven countries and graduated more than 250 students from partner government agencies. "The first part of my career was doing research, writing research papers and reports and telling everyone how good we were, and then we were asked, 'who are you telling about this work?'" he said. "We had been so busy counting fish and building fish ladders that we hadn't thought about how we extend that back. "We spent six months developing this course on how to do river development better in South-East Asia and rolled that out in Bangkok in 2016. "We have now delivered that masterclass in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, and we have been asked to roll it out in Australia." Early in 2023, the Crawford Fund masterclass was adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and adapted into a free e-learning module available to anyone in the world who wants to build better fish ladders. "We have now written standards for the Mekong River Commission," Professor Baumgartner said. "It all started from the little wooden box that floated away in the 2008 flood." Professor Baumgartner said the skills he learned working in developing countries have made him a better project manager for his work in NSW. "You have to be an incredible problem solver because it is difficult working in developing countries, in an environment where English is a second language," he said. "You constantly solve project management problems, and those skills are directly transferred back to your day job." Professor Baumgartner said the tug-of-war between agriculture and fisheries occurs in every country worldwide. "You learn after a while that the land and water are inextricably linked; you cannot do something on land that does not impact water, and you can't do something in the water that doesn't impact what happens on land," he said. "You have to have integrated solutions to this, and while we've had a lot of success with the fish ladders, that's only part of the solution. You have to work with people working the land and river operators to get good outcomes." Professor Baumgartner said he also learned about the power of community. "Anyone who has done a job in a developing country knows you cannot do anything unless you have the trust of a local community," he said. "That's something I was able to bring back to Australia - involve the community in everything we do. "Once you have won the community's trust, you can implement solutions and make change, but it does take time because you have to win trust."