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Valuing water in Aotearoa: World Water Day


22 Mar 2021

This year’s World Water Day theme is around valuing water.  Water New Zealand’s chief executive, Gillian Blythe says the global theme is particularly pertinent here in Aotearoa as we come to grips with Te Mana o te Wai and the need to uphold the mauri of the water.

The latest data on the state of our waterways certainly makes for grim reading. According to the  Ministry for the Environment report, Our Freshwater 2020, most rivers in New Zealand are classified as polluted with nutrients and a significant number polluted with e-coli. Other recent findings point out that nearly half of all our monitored lakes are so polluted that virtually nothing can survive in them.

Those disturbing facts about the state of our water are an indication of why we need to take a real look at how we in New Zealand have valued this most precious taonga and, and what we need to do to improve water quality.

Globally nearly half the world’s population don’t have access to safe drinking water and sanitation.  This means that things like basic hand-washing, especially important in this COVID-19 era, is a virtually impossible task for up to three billion people.

Compare that to New Zealand where we’re literally awash with water. Water New Zealand’s latest National Performance Review, published later this month, has found that each of us uses on average  229 litres of water per day. That’s a lot even by developed world standards.  Denmark, a water efficient country, uses less than 110 litres per person and an area in Amsterdam, the average consumption is 90 litres of water per person per day.

 In the developing world, it’s a different story. The World Health Organisations has defined basic access as the availability of at least 20 litres of drinking water per person per day.

But you would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the huge infrastructure deficit now facing our three waters (drinking, storm and wastewater) systems. It doesn’t help that our drinking, waste and stormwater networks are piped underground leading to an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude.

The looming $30-50 billion price tag to fix decades of underspending will place a big burden, not only on ourselves, but also on our children left playing catch up.  This she’ll-be-right approach is what contributed to the Havelock North contamination event in 2016 – which we now know was an event that could have happened in many other places in the country.

It’s clear that as a nation, we’ve profited on the back of a seemingly abundant supply of water which we have not truly valued.

That’s why the government’s new approach to water is an important milestone in our journey to understand and to finally, as a country, start to recognise, respect and uphold the mauri (life-force) of our water resource.

Underpinning these reforms is a major change in our relationship with water - Te Mana o te Wai.

It signals a fundamental shift in the way in which we protect and manage our water resources. Te Mana o te Wai means that all decisions about the management of drinking, wastewater and stormwater will need to be made with the health and well-being of the water at the forefront. It is a concept that sits in the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) but was given new emphasis with amendments to the statement last year.

The rewritten NPS-FM explains that regional councils and their communities, including tangata whenua, should work together to understand what values are held for fresh water in their area or rohe.

In essence it means that water needs to be thought of as having value in and of itself and that the health and mana of the water takes precedence, rather than it being a resource to be exploited.

Te Mana o te Wai has also been included in the Water Services Bill as a concept that must be given effect to when decisions around water services are being made.  There it recognises the fundamental importance of protecting the health of the water, not only at source but also the use of the water in the environment including discharges from wastewater and stormwater systems.

For instance, this means that there will be increased requirements for water to be returned to rivers and the sea in a healthy condition.  While there are many engineering and technical solutions, these will require a lot of careful consideration. 

Without a comprehensive understanding of water’s true, multidimensional value, we will be unable to safeguard this critical taonga for the benefit of everyone.