The Far North's water crisis had brought the need for government agencies to engage with hapu into sharp focus, meaning that access to water and the extraction of water must navigate through an already complex and fractured relationship.

So said Rachel Witana, from the Omapere Taraire E and Rangihamama X3A Ahu Whenua Trust (ORT), after reaching agreement with the Far North District Council to provide water from Lake Omapere for Kaikohe.

What was different about the Far North was that so much of the land, and the water catchment area, was Māori-owned, she said. Even the lake was owned by hapu, although that did not mean that the hapu would not provide access or share the water.

The hapu and government agencies had the same objective, to ensure that people had access to clean drinking water.

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"The challenge was never around providing access or providing water," Witana said.

"The challenges were around the use of our natural resources and Treaty obligations. The protection of Māori environmental taonga and associated kaitiaki responsibilities are recognised under the Resource Management Act. Environmental taonga includes land, natural features, waterways, wahi tapu, pa sites, flora and fauna, which are paramount to the Wai 262 flora and fauna claim.

"Wai 262 concerns go beyond the basic monitoring of scientific parameters. Any tapu that the lake and land hold, for example, will need to be lifted. Protocols do not need to be compromised just because this is a crisis and is urgent."

Taonga species, flora and fauna that were significant to hapu culture and identity, were also important and in need of special consideration. Water and land were seen as living entities, through the mauri aspects relating to waiora, mana, aroha and respect. Because of the natural resources and taonga species, restoration of the wellbeing of the lake and water quality were high priorities for hapu, so the importance of water could not be overstated.

Representatives of the Lake Omapere Trust, the Omapere Taraire E and Rangihamama X3A Ahu Whenua Trust and the Far North District Council at a blessing at Lake Omapere.
Representatives of the Lake Omapere Trust, the Omapere Taraire E and Rangihamama X3A Ahu Whenua Trust and the Far North District Council at a blessing at Lake Omapere.

"Where there is engagement between hapu and government agencies, the challenge is to ensure that the principles of the Treaty are being followed, or the consequences are that further grievances may be created. The Treaty requires that government agencies and hapu operate as an equal partnership," Witana said.

"To some extent that is happening with the water crisis. The ORT and government agencies have already given an indication of a more positive, constructive future. And while everyone isn't exactly standing in a circle, holding hands and singing Whakaaria Mai, progress is definitely being made."

That had not happened overnight. Behind the scenes both the ORT and the Lake Omapere Trust were working tirelessly, and were acknowledged for their leadership. Progress would not have been positive had it not been for the collaborative efforts of government agencies beyond their legislative obligations.

Meanwhile, the Lake Omapere Trust issued a statement saying Kaikohe has had its fair share of challenges over recent months, the water shortage being the latest of them, highlighting the importance of working together in a time of crisis. Stakeholders who offered meaningful solutions had to operate in their area of expertise to achieve the desired outcome.

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"With the Level 4 water restrictions, Kaikohe and the surrounding areas have found themselves in a serious crisis," the statement said.

"The Lake Omapere Trust decided to engage initially with councillor John Vujcich and then Civil Defence. Once the trust saw the seriousness of the (situation) they unanimously agreed to find a way to relieve Kaikohe of the water shortage without compromising the lake. This set things in motion over the next two weeks, the trust working alongside the key organisations to plan a way to access water from the lake, working closely with FNDC, ORT and Civil Defence.

"The Lake Omapere Trust was able to carry out their role as kaitiaki. They were also able to exercise their tikanga as owners of the lake bed and the water 'mo te Iwi Māori', which puts the lake in a very unique position.

"The positive aspects of this crisis is that the trust and other stakeholders are able to explore kotahitanga as a starting point for a model of practice where whanau, hapu and community can grow in understanding each other's important roles and work through resolving the challenges that Kaikohe faces.''