Anne Salmond: Take care of our rivers

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Tarawera River. Photo / P.K. Stowers
Tarawera River. Photo / P.K. Stowers

If you look at a map of New Zealand, you'll see an intricate network of waterways across the country. It's like a circulatory system, carrying water from the mountains and hills to farms and businesses, towns and cities, supporting life and prosperity.

Like our own bloodstream, its easy to take this system of aquifers, lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands for granted - until something goes wrong, sending off warning signals. If you ignore these symptoms, it can be fatal.

That is what's happening in New Zealand at present. Across the country, streams and rivers are being choked with sediment and slash, buried by developers, emptied by irrigators and poisoned by pollutants. Although the scientists are warning us about the dangers, we're not listening.

Farmers - even those who ought to know better - put their stock in lakes and rivers; foresters harvest and send flows of sediment and slash downstream; irrigators deplete rivers and aquifers; while businesses and individuals pour chemicals and other pollutants down drains, which then flow out to sea.

The costs to our economy and lifestyles are incalculable. Once a waterway has been choked or becomes so polluted that its ecosystems no longer work, it may be impossible to restore it. At the very least, it is extremely expensive, as we are discovering with the Rotorua lakes.

Since waterways flow into estuaries and harbours, these also become clogged with sediment, and toxic. This is happening around the country, including parts of the Hauraki Gulf. Those who love our rivers and beaches, and use them for fishing, swimming, kayaking and diving are getting increasingly angry.

Last week, the image of a herd of cows in a pristine high country lake provoked widespread outrage. The mood of the country has changed.

Farmers and foresters are losing the goodwill of the wider community, who see them as selfish and short-sighted. These practices also damage our 'clean green' image, at a time when this is one of our greatest assets. Sustainability is highly valued on global markets, and tourism is one of the biggest industries in New Zealand.

It is time for the government to listen, and set standards for fresh water that will get cattle and other stock out of waterways, protect Kiwi streams, lakes and rivers, and safeguard our future prosperity. It is time to get behind the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum, backed by so many key stakeholders.

As the Prime Minister has said, our rivers belong to all New Zealanders. Kiwis from all walks of life, ethnic groups and political parties want streams, rivers and lakes that they can swim and fish in. Since the waterways are ours, that is our right.

Dame Anne Salmond is the patron of Te Awaroa: 1000 Rivers.

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