Anne Salmond: Treat rivers as taonga, not toilets

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We must work together and prioritise the restoration of waterways over short-term commercial gain.

Te Awaroa Foundation aims to have 1000 rivers across New Zealand safe enough to swim in by 2050. Photo / David White
Te Awaroa Foundation aims to have 1000 rivers across New Zealand safe enough to swim in by 2050. Photo / David White

I agree with Gareth Morgan - our rivers are in trouble, and getting worse. He's also right, in his Dialogue piece last week, that various land users are wrecking waterways across New Zealand, passing on the costs of the damage to the public and future generations.

Intensive dairying is one major culprit, as the Commissioner for the Environment has noted. But dairying is not the only contributor to dirty streams and rivers across New Zealand.

Forestry is also harming our waterways. Many forestry companies plant pine trees right to the water's edge and harvest hundreds of hectares at a time, leaving the land bare and exposed.

When it rains, soil and logs slide down into streams and rivers, raising their beds, causing flooding downstream and damaging land, houses, roads and bridges. When rivers run brown, they dump sediment into ports and harbours, harming shellfish beds and fisheries.

Like dairying, the forestry industry needs to clean up its act. Sheep and cattle farmers are also part of the story. Many still graze their animals right down to the water's edge, letting them defecate and urinate in the water.

Horticulturalists and wine producers urge local and central government to subsidise big dams and irrigation systems, draining rivers beyond sustainable levels. The Government awards exploration licences to oil companies for drilling that involves hydraulic fracturing, polluting millions of gallons of water.

Nor are urban dwellers off the hook. In towns and cities, untreated storm water is discharged into streams, rivers and harbours, and in some cases, raw sewage. Planners and engineers allow major damage to waterways from earthworks, and bury urban streams underground in drains and culverts - out of sight, out of mind. Industrial waste is dumped in urban waterways.

As streams and rivers run through the landscape, they encounter many different land uses. Dairy farmers alone cannot restore our waterways to health, although they can make a big difference. We all have a stake in the state of our rivers.

To take care of these waterways, a major mind shift is required. To quote some of my friends on the East Coast, we need to treat our rivers as taonga, not toilets.

The reason that so many of our rivers are dirty and degraded runs far deeper than the current regulatory regime or fiscal incentives. It arises from a set of irrational beliefs - that people are in charge of the cosmos, which was created for their purposes, and can do what they like to waterways, land, the ocean and the atmosphere without harming themselves in the process.

Ideas of unlimited growth and "ecological services" are based on these myths, which find no support in contemporary science. It is unlikely that the cure for the state of our rivers can be found in current economic models, reflecting as they do these archaic illusions and the interests of particular powerful elites, at the expense of other people, future generations and the planet.

Rivers, streams, wetlands, lakes, springs and aquifers are quite literally the lifeblood of the land, the foundation of much of our prosperity, supporting farms, industrial enterprises, families and communities.

It makes no sense to degrade them for short-term profit, to serve the interests of powerful lobby groups devoid of long-term vision.

Most Kiwis understand this. According to recent surveys, the state of waterways across New Zealand is the country's No1 environmental challenge.

When a Whanganui elder says, "I am the river and the river is me. If the river is dying, so am I", he is not speaking metaphorically, but acknowledging the fundamental interlock between the health of rivers, and the health and prosperity of the communities they sustain.

As the Pure Advantage group has argued, New Zealand needs to look for its wealth in smart production systems that enhance, rather than degrade waterways, land and the ocean, keeping profits close to home to build prosperous, cohesive communities.

This can include good waste management from animals as well as people, with urine and dung being used for bio-gas or a source of nutrients, and waste water being recycled instead of being used from the source.

The new discipline of agro-ecology, which combines the sciences of land-based production with ecological knowledge, is a positive step forward.

The idea of bio-regions, which takes the diversity of our beautiful islands as a strategic advantage, creating iconic destinations and regional brands of wine, foodstuffs and other products that can be sold at a premium, is another.

The Morgan Foundation's Clean Rivers Award honours and empowers those Kiwis who are restoring our rivers.

The Land and Water Forum tried to set environmental bottom lines.

"Daylighting" projects and "liquid urbanism" that seeks to create liveable, sustainable towns and cities with streams, lakes and rivers at their heart are other visionary initiatives.

In the Te Awaroa Foundation, to be launched in the next couple of months, we'd like to work with all of these groups to create a problem-solving network that makes river restoration more straightforward, and a movement that gives it irresistible momentum.

Our aim is simple. By 2050, 1000 rivers across New Zealand will be safe for our children to swim in.

The choice is clear. We can spend our time lamenting the demise of clean rivers and streams across New Zealand, and blame each other for this catastrophe.

Or we can work together, town and country, business and consumers, government, citizens and ratepayers, on a world-leading effort to ensure that our rivers are in a state of ora (health, wellbeing and prosperity), for our own sake and that of future generations.

Dame Anne Salmond is project sponsor for Te Awaroa Foundation.

- NZ Herald

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