The contested politics of drought, water security and climate adaptation in Australia's Murray-Darling Basin

Jason Alexandra
Alexandra and Associates, Melbourne, VIC 3095, Australia & RMIT University, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia; jason@alexandra-consulting.com

Lauren Rickards
Centre for Urban Research, RMIT, Melbourne, Australia; lauren.rickards@rmit.edu.au

ABSTRACT: Droughts are intensifying in many mid-latitude river basins due to climate change; therefore understanding the influence of droughts on water policy is crucial. This study of the politics of water reforms in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) analyses contrasting discourses of water security during the Millennium Drought (1996-2010). The paper traces the historical evolution, mobilisation and effects of three discourses defined as 'drought-proofing', 'higher value use' and 'river restoration'. These are broadly aligned with engineering, economics and ecological perspectives, and while all discourses were integrated into government responses to the drought, the resurgence of drought-proofing significantly altered policy settings intended to shift MDB water management onto a more sustainable path. The paper illustrates the political and physical conditioning of water policy, placing drought responses in their historical context. The analysis demonstrates how policy actors used discourses of water security to define normative goals and legitimise policies, particularly when climatic extremes provide opportunities to influence policy outcomes. The paper provides three key insights for water governance and climate adaptation: first, drought responses can have far-reaching effects for water governance and policy trajectories; second, droughts pose challenges to positive climate adaptation when they revitalise heroic drought-proofing initiatives; and third, understanding the historical roots of contemporary drought responses is vital for effective climate adaptation.

KEYWORDS: Water security, water politics, drought, climate change adaptation, discourse, Murray-Darling Basin, Australia