ABOUT 25 years ago, give or take, I was a Massey University student studying environmental science.

One paper I took involved a field trip to the Central Plateau and we trekked to the headwaters of the Whanganui River on Tongariro.

I remember the impact of seeing the massive take of water from this pristine location - the difference above and below the hydropower intake on the slopes of the mountain.

It was shocking to realise that was how we were treating our precious river.

Advertisement

Today we have a new approach to the Whanganui River. It is its own legal entity, Te Awa Tupua - an indivisible whole, from the mountains to the sea.

I was at the inauguration of Dame Tariana Turia and Turama Hawira as Te Pou Tupua at Ngapuwaiwaha Marae in Taumarunui last weekend - it was an incredible honour to be part of the occasion. All iwi associated with the river were represented, attending a pre-dawn ceremony to safeguard the journey.

This is an important milestone in the history of the river, as well as being significant globally for the innovative model it brings to indigenous rights and environmental protection.

Many locals may not be aware that the first claim for rights for the river came in 1849 - it has been a long battle for recognition, with many frustrations along the way. There has been patience and persistence displayed by the wider Whanganui iwi and, sadly, many people are no longer here to see this achievement.

There is genuine generosity in the model created, with the wider community not just welcomed in, but built into the structure of Te Awa Tupua. There is a small group directly supporting the two Pou, then there is a wider strategic group of up to 17 representatives, Te Kpuka, helping develop the strategy for the rivers direction.

Beyond the planning, there is a new $30 million fund established that is open to all community members with a passion for the Whanganui River and enhancing its environmental state. This demonstrates the spirit with which Te Awa Tupua has been formalised.

For me, it is a great honour to be involved through Horizons Regional Council - it will expose me to a different way to look at the world, which is a rare gift. It can be hard to understand and respect different world views, particularly in our own backyard, but Im going to embrace this opportunity to be part of an inclusive conversation that examines and advocates for our river through a different lens.

Im listening again to the speech by Dame Anne Salmond, former New Zealander of the Year, who praised the Whanganui River and this new legal instrument when she was here for the A Place To Live conference in 2014. Her Royal Society Rutherford lecture entitled Rivers: Give Me The Water Of Life is still available on the Radio New Zealand website.

It doesnt feel that long ago that I was at university, debating these ideas as theories. Now students around the world will be following Te Awa Tupua closely as the first of its kind.

Like Dame Anne, I feel hopeful that Te Awa Tupua will help write a new chapter in our history where the pain of the past is replaced by a coming together of people who love this place.

Whanganui runs through the heart of our city and connects us to Te Kahui Maunga, the mountains of the Central Plateau. Whether Mori or pakeha, Te Awa Tupua offers a way to strengthen our interconnections with each other and with nature.

E rere kau mai te awa nui nei, mai i te khui maunga ki Tangaroa. Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au. The river flows from the mountains to the sea. I am the river, the river is me.

-Nicola Patrick is a Horizons regional councillor, works for Te Kaahui o Rauru and is exploring a social enterprise hub for Whanganui. A mother of two boys, she has a science degree and is a Green Party member.