Identifying low risk climate change adaptation in catchment management while avoiding unintended consequences

Media type: 
Anna Lukasiewicz
C. Max Finlayson
Jamie Pittock
Charles Sturt University
Institute for Land, Water and Society

This project tested a method for more integrative climate change adaptation that increases resilience and avoids maladaptation, focusing on three catchments in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Inherent in every adaptation measure are risks, costs and benefits. A challenge for decision makers is how to choose adaptations that reduce risks from climate change impacts and provide overwhelmingly beneficial outcomes. This project focussed on three catchments in the Murray-Darling Basin for testing a method for more integrative climate change adaptation that increased resilience and avoided maladaptation. Water management under the highly variable Murray-Darling Basin climate has lessons and broad implications for climate policies, especially as some of the proposed climate change adaptation measures for ecosystems and water resources are overly narrow or maladaptive, and have a high risk of institutional failure.

We brought together a range of experts and Catchment Management Authority (CMA) representatives from the Goulburn-Broken, Lachlan and NSW Murray catchments to synthesise and integrate the risks, costs and benefits of climate change adaptation measures and assess the extent to which they may represent maladaptation or contribute to adaptation and resilience.

Specific methods included: a literature review; a three-day technical workshop with representatives from the three CMAs as well as technical experts from academic institutions and government departments; three stakeholder workshops with the CMAs; and semi-structured interviews with 20 key stakeholder representatives in each case study. Limitations of this approach, mainly due to timing and financial constraints, included small sample sizes for the interviews, a CMA-only focus, reliance on expert opinion, and limited opportunity to further test the results.
By working with the CMAs, we:

  • Showed how systemic climate change adaptation planning can better consider risks, costs and benefits to inform choice of measures.
  • Produced research data on climate change adaptation options in specific catchments in southern Australia.
  • Identified current stakeholder understanding of the complex issue of climate change adaptation at a catchment level.
  • Confirmed the usefulness of an ‘ecosystem-based approach’ for climate change adaptation.
  • Developed a ‘CCA Catchment Assessment Framework’ as a tool for regional management bodies in southern Australia to assess climate change adaptation.

The key lessons that emerged from this research are presented below. First, there are many activities underway that if extended and linked would comprise a substantial ecosystem-based approach to adaptation. It is notable that many of these activities had not previously been considered in an adaptation context. Second, the research confirmed the need to look at a suite of complementary actions that spread risk rather than investing in one or two perceived best actions. Third, the adoption of an ecosystem-based approach is constrained by institutional complexity and socio-economic considerations that should be included in assessments of climate change adaptation. Finally, adaptive management provides a basis for the implementation of an ecosystem-based approach to climate change adaptation.

Please cite this report as: 
Lukasiewicz, A, Finlayson, CM & Pittock, J 2013, Identifying low risk climate change adaptation in catchment management while avoiding unintended consequences, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 95 pp.

Listen to the ABC interview with Max Finlayson on climate change and wetlands.

Banner and content image © Margrit Beemster, Institute for Land, Water and Society