Another approach to our freshwater crisis

Across Aotearoa New Zealand we are seriously concerned about declining river health: many are disappearing and others are no longer safe for fishing and swimming.  Most people, from my generation or older, had a favourite river or waterhole they enjoyed growing up as a Kiwi kid. But few would swim in them today – assuming they actually still existed.

The fact is, the ‘bottom line’ regulatory approach of the Government's freshwater reforms is flawed.

I am part of Te Awaroa, a project aiming to create a national movement of Kiwis taking action to care for waterways by understanding this issue from the perspective of the river – asking what would the river say/what is it saying? Te Awaroa draws from mātauranga Māori – Māori knowledge, culture, values and world view as well as science and technology. We were buoyed by the Te Awa Tupua Act 2017 which granted the Whanganui River a legal personality and recognition as an ancestor and an integrated living whole which flows from mountains to sea.

In a Māori worldview, all things are connected in a kinship-based-relationship with Te Taiao – the Earth, Universe and everything within it. Whakapapa is the central principle that orders the Te Taiao, as one whole interconnected system, comprising component parts –  Taimoana the realm of water; Taiwhenua – the realm of land; Taitangata – the realm of living things; Tairangi – the realm of the atmosphere: all inextricably linked parts of the whole.

Let’s consider the Tarawera River, its head waters flowing out of Lake Tarawera are crystal clear, bursting with life, with luxuriant native bush nestling right up to its banks. But, in its short 65km journey to where it flows into Te Moana a Toi at the Bay of Plenty, it has become dark brown black colour, with much less life.

The tragic situation that has befallen the Tarawera is not unique – many of our waterways are in similar perilous states. Rivers and streams have been buried alive in pipes, or their waters have been over-allocated for irrigation or other purposes so they only flow sporadically, if at all. There is an alarming trend of degraded water quality, lost wetlands, exhausted or polluted aquifers and intensive catchment land modification. Voices articulating their fears about the decline had been ignored for years in favour of development imperatives. But more recently communities, industry, business, politicians and philanthropists have joined the chorus of concern. And here are some sobering statistics to explain why:

- 70 percent of our rivers don’t meet Ministry of Health recreational contact guidelines

- Sediment chokes many harbours and estuaries

- 90 percent of our wetlands are gone

- 18,000-34,000 people contract waterborne diseases every year

- Pollution of freshwater is spreading

New Zealand is in a freshwater crisis. No wonder the OECD told us our growth model is approaching its environmental limits; no wonder the state of our freshwater is the environmental issue of highest public concern. The ‘humans first’ regulatory approach of the Government's strategy for freshwater is flawed. For example, $44 million funding has been allocated to enable rivers and lakes across the country to be improved compared with $400 million to fund irrigation investment.

Sadly, New Zealand is not alone. The truth is, dominant civilisations on the planet are behaving in a way that is leading our children and our children’s children, and our children’s children’s children into a bleak, unsustainable future that most of us don’t want.

The details of what we are doing to Earth, and our harmful impacts, are complex, controversial, or even just ignored. However, it is patently obvious that we humans are behaving in a manner which is destroying the Taiao and it seems we just don’t care.

Back in New Zealand, decision-makers argue about national standard parts-per-million this and dissolved oxygen limit that, missing the point entirely that, in whatever techno-scientific terms and rationalisations are used to justify decisions – our rivers are dying. Business as usual will condemn our waterways – and with it our people, our food and recreation sources, our economies, our identity – to certain death.

But there is hope: Te Awaroa, Voice of the River is not business as usual – it is a foundational Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga research and action project to inspire a national movement of New Zealanders to take care of their waterways with a goal of 1000 rivers in a state of ora (health) by 2050.

Te Awaroa seeks to transform New Zealanders’ relationship with rivers, founded upon a kinship relationship with Taiao, and building on practical and personal connections to foster a duty of care. Although a kinship approach is drawn from a Māori worldview and knowledge base, the idea enjoys widespread support of many Kiwis, as it consistent with how many of us actually ‘feel’ anyway.

Through Te Awaroa, we reframe the issue from the perspective of the river – what would the river say? What is it saying? We seek to understand river health: what the water quality is – nutrients, sediments, pathogens, human, animal and industrial waste and whether there is enough water for the flora and fauna to thrive. We seek to understand river behaviour: the underlying geology, fluvial geomorphology, flooding. When a river floods, it is a river behaving like a river. We seek the river’s stories from multiple views and perspectives, inspired by this widely known whakataukī from the Whanganui – “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au. I am the river, and the river is me.”

There are two key reasons why there is not more condemnation of current unsustainable practices:

- people do not have relationships with waterways anymore – it’s hard to care about something you don’t have a relationship with, and

- they feel powerless in the face of the relentless machine that continues to take and take and take.

Te Awaroa aims to reintroduce people to their waterways, rekindle relationships by exploring whakapapa, sharing river narratives, making hikoi along rivers, articulating the voice of the fish, the eels, the algae, the macroinvertebrates and the behaviour of the river. These collected ‘voices’ constitute the ‘Voice of the River’.

One of the few exceptions to the constant onslaught being wrought on our waterways is Te Mana o te Wai - a section of the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management that flows out of a Māori kinship framing and mātauranga Māori. It asserts that water is a taonga to Māori and it carries mauri. This is reflected in the concept of Te Mana o te Wai - 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 the ability to sustain te hauora o te tāngata (the health and mauri of the people)”.

In effect this approach says – first it is the right of a river to be a river, second we need to ensure the integrity of the catchment and flora and fauna, and third, only then can humans seek to derive sustenance.

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