Dame Anne Salmond is the Patron of the Te Awaroa: 1000 Rivers project. She was the 2013 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.

In New Zealand, we've recently been given painful lessons about what happens when waterways turn toxic. In Hawke's Bay, thousands of people have fallen ill, some dangerously so. In Canterbury, Lake Forsyth has killed sheep and dogs. According to the Ministry of Health, tens of thousands across the country fall ill from water-borne diseases every year.

Many of our rivers are no longer safe to swim in. The Hauraki Gulf, and other coastal waters are at risk. As the Rotorua Lakes illustrate, it is very expensive to try and restore degraded waterways. The costs may be unaffordable and it doesn't always work.

Increasingly, current land use regimes look reckless and short-sighted. Dairy cows, for instance, produce very large volumes of effluent, and much of it ends up in the ground water. Other kinds of industrialised farming, forestry and industrial activities are pumping large quantities of pollutants into our waterways.


When aquifers, lakes, rivers, estuaries and harbours turn toxic, they put at risk New Zealand's 100% Pure image - a major earner for the country in tourism and other industries. What happens to the economy and communities if our waterways are no longer safe?

The Government has announced that it is setting up an inquiry into the Hawke's Bay epidemic of water-borne diseases. There is a series of urgent questions that need to be asked about the current state of fresh water in New Zealand.

Why, for instance, are large-scale polluters (industrial farmers and other users) being allowed to turn waterways toxic, harming and even killing animals and people? In any other situation, such behaviour would be severely punished.

Water NZ has suggested that all municipal water supplies must be chlorinated - presumably at the cost of ratepayers and taxpayers, not polluters. Why should the rest of us pay for the damage they cause?

Will Water NZ also suggest that we chlorinate rivers, lakes and harbours, so that we can swim in them without getting sick?

If we all own the water, as the Prime Minister says, why has the Government set the bar for water quality in New Zealand so low? Whose interests are they serving? Kiwis want rivers, lakes and harbours they can swim and fish in, and pure, safe drinking water.

In the case of irrigators and water bottling industries, how can they make large profits from water sources that belong to us all?

Who is doing deals behind closed doors about pricing water? Who will get the money, and how will it be spent?

At present, it seems clear that Parliament and regional councils are being lobbied by special interest groups (industrial farmers, forestry companies, irrigators, water bottling plants and the like) to allow them to degrade and deplete waterways owned by all New Zealanders. That is wrong, and strategically unwise.

Its time for our leaders to stop squandering the natural wealth of our country - abundant, pure fresh water, fertile soils, and a rich variety of native plants and animals.

In New Zealand, we have everything to gain from living up to our "100% Pure" image - rivers that are safe to swim in, pure drinking water, products that attract a premium on global markets, landscapes that are a joy to inhabit, destinations to die for, and lasting prosperity for our children and grandchildren.

Agroecology and other new kinds of land use hold the promise of a bright future.

Poisoning our waterways, choking them with slash and sediment, and depleting them for short-term profit simply doesn't make sense.