Dirty rivers destroying mauri of our oceans

Reconnecting us to our environment is a challenge that must be met if the mauri of our water is to be restored, argue researchers looking at the health of the Firth of Thames

Water is viewed as taonga by Māori - something to be treasured - a view shared by most New Zealanders. In the last few months there has been increasing focus on the perilous state of our streams and rivers, highlighted by Government reports and in the media.  This has led to an intense debate on water in New Zealand, its use, and who should bear the cost of cleaning our taonga.  However, two important points have received little attention.

First, any “non-swimmable” rivers or streams, whether polluted from rural or urban sources, eventually flow into the sea.  In some places, this is through an estuary or harbour, but for many of our major rivers, including the Waikato, the river drains directly into the ocean. Activities in the catchment, therefore, directly impact the volume and quality of the freshwater reaching the ocean.

Second, the mauri of our freshwaters, estuaries, harbours and oceans has been compromised. Mauri in this instance is best understood as ‘the life-supporting capacity of the waters and environments’ – if the water is muddy and you can’t see into it – its mauri is compromised; if the river is choked with weed – its mauri is comprised; if you drink water and it makes you ill, its mauri is compromised.  We don’t need techno-scientific data to tell us that it is compromised – we can see it, we can feel it.  So although mauri is a Māori word, it is a universal concept and, as many of us have seen and felt, the mauri of the majority of our waterways and increasingly our beaches, estuaries, harbours and oceans has been compromised. 

Mauri is part of a holistic system, ki uta ki tai (from the mountains to the sea), with the kaitiaki (guardians) tasked with ensuring that whole systems are in balance, in both nature and people. If the mauri of our waterways is compromised, then so too is the health and wellbeing of our people.

Why does this matter?  Many of us live in and around harbours, and are more likely to swim in the ocean than we are in rivers.  Our research in Tikapa Moana (Firth of Thames) has made us acutely aware of how freshwater inputs from the Waihou and Piako Rivers are impacting the overall mauri of Tikapa Moana at all levels: environmental, cultural, social and economic. High nitrogen and sediment loads, and levels of copper, lead and zinc that frequently exceed sediment quality guidelines are brought into Tikapa Moana every year.  This poor water quality directly impacts recreational and social activities, cultural practices, the wetlands and chenier plains of international significance at Pūkorokoro Miranda, the migratory shorebirds and seabirds, the aquaculture industry and general biodiversity of the region. It may soon impact our tourism and agricultural industries.

How do we fix this? The challenge for Aotearoa, on behalf of future generations, is to provide for the enhancement of ‘mauri ora’, the vitality, richness and diversity that our tupuna enjoyed, and to reconnect the public to their environment, so that they understand how individually they impact the water systems that we are guardians of.  One of the largest stumbling blocks to improving the mauri of New Zealand’s rivers is legislative, with some of our larger rivers coming under the jurisdiction of multiple city and regional councils, and with different entities responsible for the freshwater and the marine environment.

To restore the mauri of our rivers and streams we need to consider Te Mana o te Wai, the integrated and holistic well-being of freshwater, as recognised in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management. Specifically, Te Mana o te Wai pertains to the innate relationship between Te Hauora o te Wai (the health and mauri of water), and Te Hauora o te Taiao (the health and mauri of the environment), and their ability to sustain Te Hauora o te Tāngata (the health and mauri of the people).  What we believe this means is that the first right is for the river to be a river, the second right is for a river, its catchment and its inhabitants to be healthy, and then, once we are satisfied that the river can be a river, and its inhabitants are safe, we may use the water.

We also need to take a ki uta ki tai approach - considering impacts and building solutions along the length of the river, from the spring, rain or snow-melt in the mountains that is the source, to the receiving waters of the oceans at its end.  This will be challenging, but with the guidance of the kaitiaki, the engagement and goodwill of the users, and broad-scale financial support for the restoration of mauri, we can do this together - so that our children and grandchildren can swim in both the rivers and streams, and the oceans into which they flow.

Ko te wai te ora ngā mea katoa – Water is the life giver of all things

He waka eke noa - A canoe which we are all in with no exception

By Professor Mary A. Sewell, Dr Daniel Hikuroa, and Emily Frost (University of Auckland); Lucy Tukua (Ngati Paoa, Ngati Whanaunga, Ngati Tahinga) and Richelle Kahui-McConnell (Ngati Maniapoto)

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