The politics of adaptive governance: water reform, climate change, and First Nations’ justice in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin

Carina A. Wyborn, Lorrae E. van Kerkhoff, Matthew J. Colloff, Jason Alexandra, Ruby Olsson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Adaptive water governance scholarship aspires to flexible and responsive governance that is inclusive and supports learning and collaboration among a wide range of stakeholders. Much of this scholarship assumes that polycentric arrangements will facilitate these characteristics as different nodes of decision making adapt and respond to challenges within their arena of authority. However, in the case of both adaptive water governance and polycentricity, there are growing questions as to whether the reality matches the theoretical ideal. Drawing on a case study of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, we introduce the concept of a polycentric spectrum to distinguish between systems that resist change from those that enable more adaptive transformative change. In our case study, an overarching national agenda of water reform has generated a perpetual cycle of reviews and inquiries into water governance. We examined 34 reviews conducted since 2004, asking whether, how, and to what extent these recommendations are enabling governance adaptation and transformation versus maintaining conventional paradigms. Our analysis revealed problem-solving logics that have dominated water governance for decades to stymie efforts to move toward the more adaptive and transformative forms of governance required to address two key areas of reform: climate change and First Nations’ water justice. Despite an acknowledged need for substantive reforms, inquiry recommendations perpetuate technocratic (for climate change) or administrative rationalist (for First Nations) approaches. We argue that the reform agenda needs to be directed away from governments as the sole agents of change through deliberate and strategic efforts to engage local level and non-state actors who are central to adaptive water governance. This would require debate about reforms to move beyond how water is allocated and optimized to address how power is redistributed in the system. Our analysis questions whether polycentricity alone is sufficient to enable normatively desirable adaptive water governance, suggesting the need for future work to consider whether other organizing concepts, such as water justice might be required.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023


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