The governance of engineered rivers: comparing and contrasting the Murray-Darling, Colorado, Rhine and Yellow Rivers

Crawford School of Public Policy | Executive course
Policy Fundamentals


A deep understanding of Natural Resource Management (NRM) is crucial to the effective management of the system. Throughout the program participants will be guided by experts in the field to plan strategic policy interventions and broaden their knowledge of NRM to skilfully identify opportunities free from path dependence, ethical dimensions and manage NRM contracts and relationships.

Course overview


Decision makers responsible for engineered rivers such as the Murray-Darling, Colorado and Yellow face extraordinary governance challenges. Climate change and economic development are destabilizing agreements negotiated in easier earlier times causing political conflicts which are increasingly difficult to manage. The extreme modifications to which these rivers have been subjected have generated great benefits but also require intensive management to minimize costs and risks, many of them unexpected. In the Murray-Darling the response to drought, and defining the balance between irrigation and the environment, remain highly contested. In the Colorado the water shares allocated to the lower basin states, and to irrigation as opposed to urban centres, cannot be sustained within existing agreements based on over-optimistic climate assumptions. Managers in the Rhine Delta are struggling to protect vulnerable cities against rising sea levels, higher tides and more severe floods. For their colleagues in the Yellow River Basin, the task is to resist the water demands of the fastest growing economy in the world, and keep the river flowing to the sea to maintain a deep river channel and prevent the breakout floods which have periodically killed millions of people.


Common to all basins is the need for institutions and supportive political cultures which will enable decision makers to defy the immediate demands of powerful interests and manage for society-as-a-whole and the future unborn. Looking at these four rivers we will ask - are some institutional arrangements more successful than others in adapting to the pressures of climate change and economic development? Why? To what degree can good governance practices identified in one river catchment be transferred to others? And finally – are there good strategies for the implementation of river governance reforms?

Learning outcomes:

  • Understanding the connection between institutional and cultural settings and sustainable water management
  • Understanding the hurdles and opportunities for achieving good governance on engineered rivers
  • Develop criteria for assessing the value for different policy options

Updated:  26 October 2021/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team