Optimising water management in the Anthropocene? A case study of adaptive governance in a sub-catchment of the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia

Jess Schoeman

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

    129 Downloads (Pure)


    A focus on learning is paramount for water governance to adapt to rapid social, ecological and climatic changes in the Anthropocene. Adaptive management provides the best available learning process to navigate the ‘wickedness’ of contemporary water challenges, which involve multiple causes and drivers; multiple perspectives; complex interactions across scales and levels; and shifting understanding of the problem over time. The concept of adaptive management has resonated with researchers and practitioners in water and catchment management, but the ideal has rarely been observed in practice. This research seeks to understand the social, institutional and governance dimensions of adaptive water management through a detailed, local case study, and then situate these insights in the context of global change.

    The social and institutional dimensions of adaptive water management are often poorly understood, yet deeply influence how knowledge is applied in practice. This research employed an interpretive, qualitative approach to explore factors influencing learning in a single in-depth case study of water management in the Lachlan catchment, Murray-Darling Basin, Australia. Interpreting the findings involved the development of an analytic framework outlining five factors that were influencing learning and adapting in water institutions: regimes, rules, relationships, routines and rhetoric. Data were created through interviews with key managing and policy stakeholders at Local, Regional, State and Commonwealth levels (n=19) and content analysis of water policy documents (n=190).

    Interview participants expressed divergent understandings of what adaptive management is; and some described situations where learning was ad hoc rather than systematic. Nevertheless, there was also promising evidence of more active adaptive management of environmental flows, which was resulting in higher-level learning. Dissemination of contested facts by scientists, landholders and rural media was causing conflicting views between stakeholders around whether the Lachlan River is over-used; the severity of environmental degradation; the amount of water that should be set aside for the environment; third-party impacts of water reforms; and how to plan for drought.

    Overall, there is evidence that the regimes, rules, relationships, routines and rhetoric operating within the complex, nested governance system of the Basin, are both supporting and constraining the emergence of adaptive governance in different ways. The ability of persons with long-standing roles to build trusting relationships, and foster cooperation through ‘bridging’ groups, has enabled the delivery of significant volumes of environmental water in the Lachlan. However, restrictive rules and mandates, and the culture in government agencies, which values certainty, efficiency and risk management more than ‘adaptability’, are highly constraining. Furthermore, local and regional participants were frustrated that their autonomy is being eroded in favour of more centralised and standardised water management.

    The final discussion situates the contributions of the case study in the context of water challenges in the Anthropocene. The research findings provide evidence of the importance of ‘tacit’ local knowledge for governing in complex and uncertain situations and the divisive or harmonising power of moral claims, values, politics, science and other types of knowledge. The case study also illuminates issues associated with access to and ownership of scarce water supplies; the contested nature of subsidiarity; and the need to redefine the human-nature relationship to recognise that people are inseparable from the ‘natural environment’ in the Anthropocene. The evidence presented in this thesis emphasises the profound importance of people acting at the local level, particularly their capacity to self- organise and develop local water institutions that form the basis for adaptive water governance from local to global levels.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Charles Sturt University
    • Allan, Catherine, Principal Supervisor
    • Finlayson, Max, Principal Supervisor
    Award date01 Mar 2017
    Publication statusPublished - 2017


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