Journal & Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol. 150, part 1, 2017,

pp. 68–92. ISSN 0035-9173/17/010068-25


Water reform in the Murray–Darling Basin: a challenge in

complexity in balancing social, economic and environmental


John Williams FTSE

Adjunct Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University,

Canberra, Australia

Adjunct Professor, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, Albury, Australia





The Murray–Darling Basin is a very good example of a complex system. It is a complex system of

environmental function in which snow melt and winter rain feed the south, while subtropical summerdominant

rainfall feeds the northern rivers. It is a complex system of re-engineering and readjustment

of the natural and built infrastructure. It is also a complex system of human endeavour facilitating

community adjustment and development, strongly driven by extremely high climatic variability and

thus agricultural productivity, which is exposed to highly variable prices and demand for its produce.

Then across the top of all this complexity is climate change, which is expected to impact further on

increased climate variability. Thrust upon these complex interacting, biophysical, economic and

social systems has been public policy in water reform to address the large over-extraction of water for

agriculture from the rivers and groundwater aquifers of the Basin. Amidst all this complexity, public

policy sought to return stressed rivers and groundwater systems to healthy conditions where floodplains,

wetlands and riverine ecosystems regain a significant part of their ecological and hydrological

function. Over $11 billion will be spent on the Basin Plan — a complex system in public policy and

we are only in the middle of it. Despite this huge expenditure, the policy choices and processes are

yet to show evidence that public benefit in a healthy river will be achieved.


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