Group of Eight Australia
Australia's Leading Universities

Core Case Study

The story line in this case study is fictional but is loosely based on current and factual information.
The characters, events and research projects described in this case study are fictitious and any
similarity to actual persons, events and research projects is purely coincidental.

This case study operates across all FRLP modules. This page provides the context and background relating to the case. It will provide the necessary guidance for any new reader coming into one of the modules.


The situation was worsening and Sheldon Shepherd, Executive Director of the Murray-Darling Management Trust (MDMT) knew there had to be a way to alleviate the current environmental situation. Having just completed the ‘Getting Started’ phase of the Basin Program he now realized how difficult it would be to gather the required data and experts needed to recommend and inform state and federal government bodies, stakeholders and the local community groups of the gravity of their responsibility to the overall health and sustainability of the Murray Darling Basin (MDB). The MDB committee was concerned that this delicate and fragile ecosystem needed expert help and advice. Calling on local researchers specializing in water, environmental, biological and agricultural sciences, Sheldon Shepherd briefed them on the current identified issues as outlined in the Basin Program. These experts were concerned with the extent of the project and felt that a national collaborative approach involving leading researchers would be the best option to progress the project. Professor Stupendous, from your Go8 university, visited the Murray Darling region and arranged an informal meeting with Sheldon Shepherd to see if he and his research team could assist with the Basin Program. Impressed by Professor Stupendous’ interest and breadth of experience, Sheldon decided to provide Stupendous with a local information fact sheet which was included in the Basin Program and outlines basic local and historical information:


The Murray-Darling Management Trust coordinates the largest example of integrated catchment management in the world. Working together, governments and the local community have formed a partnership to ensure the sustainable use of the natural resource of the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB).  The Darling flows from Queensland, through New South Wales and Victoria and downstream to South Australia. Overall the catchment area is one seventh of Australia's land mass. In 2006, more than two million people were living within the MDB (as reported in the Census), around 10% of Australia's population. The largest shares of the Basin's population resided within the states of New South Wales (39%) and Victoria (29%). Less than 70,000 people (4%) in the MDB were identified as Indigenous (Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander), double the national average of 2%. The majority of Indigenous people in the MDB (45,650 people) resided in New South Wales with fewer residing in Queensland (8,870) and Victoria (8,670). The Murray-Darling Basin is an area of national significance for social, cultural, economic and environmental reasons. The social impacts of changes in agriculture and environmental events, such as drought, are important for people in the MDB. The MDB also contains nationally significant environmental assets which are reliant on water to maintain ecosystem health.

European settlement began in the region in the 1850s and by 1861 the government passed legislation allowing land leases to be offered to the settlers. These settlers used the land for commercial ventures and turned the water and land resources into a profitable venture. The Colonial governments supported these activities and funded expeditions to locate and identify other fertile lands for agricultural activities. Many of the early settlers were driven by the desire to make their fortune off the land and had little regard for the long-term effects of their actions. The current environmental state of the MDB is a result of the combined social and ecological actions of the early settlers. The introduction of exotic species, overgrazing, the desire for financial gain, the poor understanding of climatic variability and a lack of land administration and management has resulted in a damaged and fragile ecosystem. For the Aboriginal people of the Darling, the river is the centre for their existence. Living around the Darling River, the local indigenous language groups relied on the resources of the river for life. The abundance of fish, mussels, water birds and crustaceans, meant there was a large quantity of fresh produce for these communities. Once European settlers arrived, the Aboriginal groups lost access to the fertile land and to their sacred sites. These communities were eventually forced to move away from the area and to relocate to local regional towns. The recognition of Native Title in the 1990s across Australia has opened the way for Aboriginal communities to gain access and other rights to the lands around the Darling River, but no claims have been successful to date.

Stupendous agreed that with such a history in the region, the Murray-Darling Management Trust needed to be strategic in identifying a suitable research partnership that would support its goals and also enable best practice to be identified and pursued. On review of Stupendous’ research track record, Sheldon and MDMT members agreed that Professor Stupendous and his research team were qualified to support and developed the best and latest scientific, social, cultural and economic research, evidence and analysis. It also strongly desired the publication of any results of those investigations, as it believed the MDMT’s dedication and commitment to the region might provide assistance to international organizations battling similar environmental issues.

With this in mind, Murray-Darling Management Trust built a partnership with your university. It chose a Go8 for many reasons. Firstly, it believed that a comprehensive research-intensive university would have the expertise and know-how to support the various projects. Secondly, it was keen to draw on Federal Government funding to assist its development agenda, and believed a Go8 university would have the best know-how to gain this support. Thirdly, it had a long history of collaborative projects with various researchers in the university and they had been well managed and successfully concluded. Fourthly, MDMT knew the basis of their research would be multidisciplinary and that Go8’s would provide the largest pool of excellence across the range of disciplines required.

Professor Stupendous returned to your university and relayed the discussion he had had with the MDMT to his research team and other research leaders from various disciplines. They all agreed the research focus would be complex but were all eager to play an active part. Professor Stupendous pulled together a wide-ranging group of researchers and research support staff to review the proposed project and to determine a clear research focus. This project, comprising of 6 components, focuses on the areas of need in the MDB region and covers the environmental, social, economic and cultural value of the district. These areas of need have been discussed with Stupendous, his research group and MDMT and the following projects have been developed:

  • The MDMT identified that the uncertainty in future climate projections was extensive and that water resources planning should consider a range of possible scenarios to assess system robustness and resilience. The MDMT have requested that further research should map and predict the climate patterns for the next 10 years. The data gathered would then be used to modify and expand on the Basin Program. The researchers would need to consider the balance between risks and rewards in the use of the data and whether the current Murray-Darling system can adapt to climate changes and other water variances.  
  • There were 61,033 farms in the MDB in 2005-06, accounting for 39% of all farms in Australia. Within the MDB in 2005/2006, 100% of rice, 95% of oranges, 62% of pigs, 54% of apples and 48% of wheat was produced in this region with a Gross Value of Agricultural Production (GVAP) of $15 billion, or 39% of the total Australian value of agricultural commodities. With the local community relying on agriculture as a form of livelihood, the MDMT has identified that an efficient water trading regime be established. Taking into account the needs of the region and the financial implications, it is hoped that a trading program be designed to comply with state legislation while developing a water rights information service which facilitates water trading across the Murray–Darling Basin.
  • The health and well-being of the community is also of considerable importance to MDMT. The Garnaut Climate Change Review (2008) recognised the challenges associated with the drought and the issues associated with small social communities in isolated regions. Of particular concern was the increased prevalence of depression, anxiety and alcoholism amongst farmers who are experiencing financial pressures due to the current environmental situation.
  • Australian encephalitis (AE) is becoming an increasing problem in the Murray-Darling Basin.  The disease spreads by mosquitoes living in the Murray-Darling region with either Murray Valley encephalitis (MVE) and/or Kunjin (KUN) virus being the main causes. While these viruses are different, they both have lifecycles which involve water birds as their natural hosts. The increased prevalence of AE in the MDB has correlated with an increase in the number of mosquitoes. With AE being endemic within regions of Queensland and northern Western Australia, further research is needed to assess the risk posed to the MDB population. With additional support from Queensland & Western Australian Health departments, a comprehensive study will focus on the variations in the strains and their mosquito vectors to assist in the formulation of strategies to contain the spread and impact of AE.
  • A cross-disciplinary team consisting of an anthropologist, a linguist, an environmental scientist and an Australian historian will research the impact and enduring consequences of European occupation on the indigenous peoples.
  • The 1964 Australian novel Storm Boy, written by Colin Thiele, is set in the Coorong wetlands of South Australia. The Coorong National Park relies on the Murray-Darling River to sustain and nourish the local flora and fauna in the region. The Anglo-Australian protagonist of the novel is taught about the Indigenous connection with the land by the Indigenous character, Fingerbone Bill. The project will investigate how Australian non-indigenous writers have depicted Indigenous peoples and practices since the publication of Storm Boy. The project will consider the reasons why early literary depictions of Indigenous people and places rendered them aesthetic or removed them from the historical and political context of their day, and will diagnose the changes in ethics which have enabled our society’s current view of the matter.

Professor Stupendous returned to his university and recognised the challenges associated with such a complex project. He also acknowledged that it would be necessary to draw in others to assist with the leadership of the project. He was delighted when Professor Prolific agreed to be the second Principal Investigator and co-director of the project. She had directed many complex collaborative research projects with significant national recognition for the outcomes. Together they would be drawing together a range of leading researchers, with some having far less experience in cross-disciplinary collaboration. The directors could think of suitable honours and postgraduate students, postdoctoral fellows and various academics from the different disciplines, including a number of very senior researchers with international profiles.

Stupendous and Prolific spent many days discussing the practicalities of the research program with Sheldon Shepherd. A formal arrangement was arranged and welcomed by both parties. With the initial memorandum of understanding signed, the exciting work could now begin ...



Case Study Principal Writer
Maree Magafas, University of New South Wales
with contributions by
Dr Anne Brewster, University of New South Wales
Professor Shelda Debowski, University of Western Australia
Dr Gro Frølund, University of New South Wales
Dr Laurent Rivory, University of New South Wales