The Rangeland Journal The Rangeland Journal Society
Rangeland ecology and management

Natural resources governance for the drylands of the Murray–Darling Basin

Graham R. Marshall A C and D. Mark Stafford Smith B
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Institute for Rural Futures, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia.

B CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems and Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, PO Box 284, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.

C Corresponding author. Email:

The Rangeland Journal 32(3) 267-282
Submitted: 30 March 2010  Accepted: 2 August 2010   Published: 14 September 2010


Critiques of governance arrangements for natural resource management in Australia have expanded rapidly in recent years. Meanwhile, arguments have strengthened internationally that drylands share characteristics that justify a specific ‘drylands syndrome’ understanding of their management. These issues converge in the drylands of the Murray–Darling Basin (MDB). We explore in this paper the insights that this convergence offers for designing governance arrangements for the natural resources of the MDB. We argue that the characteristics of the MDB drylands justify transformation of these arrangements to those of adaptive governance; and more specifically that this model of governance should be founded on the related concepts of polycentricity and subsidiarity. We explain how three aspects of polycentric governance contribute to the robustness of social-ecological systems and identify the particular relevance of each to the MDB drylands. Even so, transformation to polycentric governance would face formidable obstacles from vested interests and mental models that have adapted to the status quo. Acknowledging the reality that hurdling such obstacles requires strategic preparation to exploit windows of opportunity, we propose several pragmatic steps to be followed in strategically pre-adapting the MDB drylands for this transformation. Although transforming to adaptive governance is not without risk, we argue that the risks of inaction for the MDB drylands are greater.

Additional keywords: adaptive governance, cost-effectiveness, drylands syndrome, polycentricity, robustness, subsidiarity, transformation.


Graham Marshall’s work reported in this article was supported by funding from the Australian Government’s Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities program for the project ‘Improving economic accountability when using decentralised, collaborative approaches to environmental decisions’. Mark Stafford Smith’s work reported herein was supported by CSIRO and funding from the Australian Government Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Programme through the Desert Knowledge CRC (, accessed 19 August 2010). We thank Vanessa Chewings for drawing Fig. 1. We greatly appreciated review comments on earlier versions of this manuscript from Nick Abel, Jason Alexandra, Jocelyn Davies, Warren Musgrave, Sarah Ryan, Alistair Watson and two anonymous reviewers. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Australian Government, nor the Desert Knowledge CRC and its participants. This is Publication No. 11 in the development of a Science of Desert Living.


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