Sustainable groundwater management: A comparative analysis of French and Australian policies (Rinaudo et al. 2020)

François Molle

dripRinaudo, J.-D.; Holley, C.; Barnett, S. and Montginoul, M. (Eds). 2020.  Sustainable groundwater management: A comparative analysis of French and Australian policies and implications to other countries. Global Issues in Water Policy 24, Springer. ISBN 978-3-030-32766-8, 562 p., €135,19.


François Molle

Senior researcher, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), Montpellier, France;


To cite this Review: Molle, F. 2020. Review of “Sustainable groundwater management: A comparative analysis of French and Australian policies and implications to other countries”, Springer, 2020, edited by J.-D. Rinaudo, C. Holley; S. Barnett and M. Montginoul, Water Alternatives,


This hefty volume is the outcome of a collaborative project between two teams of scientists engaged in comparing groundwater management in France and Australia. The profuse literature published over the past decade (including from the co-editors of this volume) about water management in general and groundwater in particular, especially on Murray-Darling-related water issues, may make the reader wonder what is new here and whether it is worth reading these 560 pages when articles and books are showered on us at an increasingly overwhelming rate.

The 27-chapter volume starts with a few useful and well-illustrated chapters, providing information on the status and diversity of aquifers as well as the historical background of the groundwater management policy of each country. It then mixes thematic chapters (e.g. water markets, groundwater information systems, compliance and enforcement, reducing entitlements, etc.) with case studies from both countries but, despite the structure presented in the introduction, the transition from one chapter to the next is not always straightforward. A summary at the end of each of the four themes under discussion would have been welcome.

The four case studies in France – the Bordeaux region, the Tarn-et-Garonne aquifer, the Marais Poitevin (marshes) and the Beauce aquifer – are among the cases that occasionally claim a degree of success ; they deserve a full treatment and to be now available, in English, to a wider audience. The three Australian case studies explore, respectively, the Perth Northwest urban growth corridor, the Barossa Valley in South Australia and the lower Murrumbidgee area.

The strength of the book resides in its thorough analysis of three critical aspects of quantitative groundwater management: the first refers to the definition of what are sustainable abstraction limits in confined and unconfined aquifers; the second concerns the pathways available to reduce abstraction when actual use exceeds sustainable yield targets; and the third issue is that of compliance and enforcement. Chapter 22 on 'Groundwater regulation, compliance and enforcement: insights on regulators, regulated actors and frameworks in New South Wales, Australia' is a remarkable summary of the work on compliance spearheaded by Cameron Holley (the first author of the chapter) and other Australian scholars over the past decade. This work, to my knowledge, is quite unique and should be emulated in other contexts where knowledge regarding compliance and enforcement tends to be absent. These analyses dissect the policy model that the authors set out to examine, which consists of 1) capping total resource use, 2) allocating use rights accordingly, and 3) finding mechanisms to allow re-allocation and adapting to changing economics and climatic conditions.

The last two chapters serve as teasers for a future expanded comparison. Without fully achieving this, they are both useful for different reasons. The chapter on Chile vividly describes a water-rights system long ideologically insulated from the complexities of hydrology, giving a sense of the yawning gap between current practice and the ideal management of such a system. The chapter on California depicts a story of procrastination which somehow makes the claim of a move 'from the backseat to the driver seat' sound a little bit heroic. Other than that it is a very detailed and comprehensive chronology of groundwater management in California, up to and including the watershed 2014 Act, and makes a great starting point.

The book is not, of course, without a few shortcomings. It is unfortunate, for example, that Springer seems no longer to consider copyediting a publisher’s duty (with an error creeping in the very title), even when it sells books at €135. The reader will be puzzled by the repeated misconception that balanced abstraction is that where abstraction is equal to aquifer recharge. It is also to be regretted that the case studies rarely go beyond describing successive policy approaches and measures to tackle groundwater overexploitation: there is limited discussion of local politics, compliance by users on the ground (this is addressed in another chapter) or, more broadly, how different actors behave and what their strategies are (especially users). But the dearth of such studies is common and the editors cannot be blamed for their absence here.

Unlike many edited volumes whose chapters loosely hold together and are opportunistically gathered under an all-encompassing title, this ends with a detailed comparison between the two countries that recaps and provides perspective to the rich material it contains. This serves to emphasise the main conclusions and fully convince the reader of the relevance and worth of having undertaken such a comparison. By compiling comprehensive information within a single volume and teasing out the key differences between the two countries, as well as the overall lessons, this book is definitely essential reading for groundwater scholars looking to advance their thinking about how groundwater overexploitation could be curbed. In particular, it becomes clear that little success can be expected absent considerable financial and human resources provided by the state; that the negative impacts of limiting withdrawals are unlikely to be accepted without some form of compensation; or that entitlements must be separated from allocations in order to allow flexibility in the management of a resource that varies from one year to the other (especially in quaternary aquifers with strong linkages with rivers). The reader, however, should not expect to find a list of standard prescriptions at the end of this book, a trap the authors have avoided by rightly preferring to emphasize the many obstacles along the long, winding and bumpy road towards 'sustainability'. Likewise, there is no definitive success story here – only a decades-long history of measures and efforts to establish fragile balances between resources and their use that remain vulnerable to the vagaries of uncertain climate, economic incentives, and willingness to comply.


Additional Info

  • Authors: J.-D. Rinaudo, C. Holley; S. Barnett and M. Montginoul
  • Year of publication: 2020
  • Publisher: Springer
  • Reviewer: François Molle
  • Subject: Water policy, Water governance, Water rights, Environment, Groundwater, Water allocation, Climate change
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English