Institute at Brown for Environment and SocietyIBES

Zac Bischoff-Mattson

Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin is a landscape alternately parched by drought and deluged by floods. In this highly variable climate, graduate affiliate Zac Bischoff-Mattson wants to understand how the region’s people make decisions about water—a resource whose social and political worth is only destined to become more complex on a rapidly warming planet.

Bischoff-Mattson’s research centers around a framework called adaptive governance—a form of decision-making that seeks to customize goal-setting with respect to local perspectives, norms, and power dynamics.

‘“We need an adaptive, and above all contextual, process for identifying common interests, and for bringing different knowledge systems to bear in advancing those common interests,” he explains. “This is ultimately about a reflexive process for social learning… and approaching a system where everything, including our own goals and the values at stake, are a moving target.”

The Murray-Darling Basin is especially well-suited to Bischoff-Mattson’s exploration of adaptive governance principles, in part because of its diversity.  

“This is an area with urban and rural populations,” he says. “It's the agricultural heartland of Australia and is really responsible for the majority of its agricultural domestic product. It's also a place where there are indigenous communities that have a living connection to country stretching back 40,000 years.”

Ultimately, Bischoff-Mattson hopes to contribute to the conversation on water rights in Australia and the ways in which current management strategies affect the lives of the region’s diverse sets of people.

“The Murray Darling is really an iconic test case for dealing with this stuff, he says. “When it comes to variability and scarcity at a large scale, when it comes to addressing those complexities as well as the diversity of human values attached to water, the Australians are grappling with stuff that will define the challenge of water governance in a climate changing world.”

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