I am the river

by Vanessa Ellingham

Are we running out of water? (Issue III/2022)


In April 2020, as New Zealand’s borders closed amid the pandemic, the last Covid repatriation flight to Germany touched down in Frankfurt. One of the last planes to head to the south pacific island state contained five German engineers, on a special mission to repair a Wellington wastewater pipe. With the help of a polyester lining, which was used on 1.8 kilometres of pipe, it was finally successful.

Unfortunately, fixes like this tend to be band-aids on what is a nation-wide problem of outdated water infrastructure. Because of a pipeline system that partly dates back to the 1920s, pipes often burst and, as a consequence, roads are closed for months. Untreated sewage often leaks into the sea, killing fish and causing bathing bans.

In 2020, the water authorities in New Zealand’s diminutive capital Wellington reported that sewage spills were occuring at 20 the acceptable target. And the consequences have been fatal. In 2016, at least 8,000 of Havelocks North’s 13,000 residents were infected with campylobacter after heavy rainfall carried agricultural waste from a sheep farm into the town’s water supply. Four people died as a result. Each year approximately 34,000 New Zealanders become ill from drinking water. In some parts of the country, residents are frequently advised to boil their water before they can safely drink it.

The state of the drinking water is a far cry from New Zealand’s image as a clean, green paradise, a dream that is quickly fading for many residents. Decades of intensive agriculture polluting the country’s waterways, as well as a lack of investment in water infrastructure, have left New Zealand in a desperate water situation that a new government reform aims to solve. The Three Waters reform rethinks the country’s drinking water, stormwater and wastewater systems. Currently, local and city councils are responsible for this infrastructure, but under the proposed reform, this management will be transferred to a more centralised set of entities that, unlike the councils, will be able to borrow the estimated 73-112 billion euros) needed to upgrade New Zealand’s water infrastructure over the next 30 years.

Dr Lokesh Padhye from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Auckland says that centralising these services will allow for the better allocation of resources and regulation of these systems. The current situation, where the three waters are each managed separately, is causing some problems. “For example,” he says, “when it rains a lot, the stormwater gets into the wastewater drains, particularly in Auckland’s central business district, and then the bulked up wastewater can’t be treated, so they discharge untreated wastewater into the surrounding bay. That’s when you see all these signs popping up on the beaches, saying that the water is unsafe to swim in.”

“Local councils will must involve local Māori in setting long-term visions for water”

Normally the ins and outs of infrastructure governance wouldn’t be dinner table conversation in most New Zealand homes. But the Three Waters reform has become a hot-button issue because it brings into play a much wider conversation about constitutional power and race relations.

In 1840, Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi with representatives of the British Crown, enshrining both British governance and Māori rangatiratanga, or sovereignty. At its centre was an ideal of true partnership, recognising both parties’ rights to preside over their own affairs. However, the British Crown’s insistence on dominance, through the land wars that followed shortly after the Treaty was signed, and the decades of Māori deprivation since, has seen it fail to live up to the Treaty it signed. In the 1970s, the New Zealand government opened a tribunal to hear historic claims of Treaty breaches and successive governments have worked to address them.

The Three Waters reform is one example of the government proactively including Māori, who make up 17 percent of the population, as co-governance partners from the outset. Māori leaders have had a say in the proposal, which recommends guaranteed Māori representation on each of the new centralised water management entities, alongside local government.

The Ngāi Tahu tribal area is New Zealand’s largest, covering most of the postcard-worthy South Island. The Chief Executive of the tribe’s freshwater management entity Te Kura Taka Pini, Gabrielle Huria, says the reform is a good example of the government involving Māori as its Treaty partner early on.

But it is this inclusion of Māori that is rubbing a certain section of New Zealand’s populace up the wrong way. Uncomfortable with the idea of Māori leadership at a national level, detractors have become easy targets for fake news campaigns that overstate how much power Māori representatives stand to gain. Undermining the reform has become an easy way for the opposition National Party to gain support, by shoring up racist anti-Māori sentiment.

This is a cynical tactic, given that both major parties have committed to engaging with Māori at governance level. In 2014, when the National Party was in power, its freshwater policy statement included Te Mana o Te Wai, a Māori perspective which says that the health of freshwater sources, like lakes and rivers, should be prioritised above the will of humans. It is this concept which the Three Waters reform aims to carry out under the now Labour-led government. Local councils will be required to actively involve local Māori in setting long-term visions for their freshwater sources, include Māori knowledge systems in the water’s management and apply the concept’s hierarchy of obligations, where the health of the water source comes first.

“Indigenous peoples around the world have had an intimate link to their environment for millennia, and the Māori are no exception.”

For Māori, the environment is intrinsically linked with their identity. For example, Māori introduce themselves by listing the natural elements that have given life to them and their ancestors. Most people start by naming their local mountain, followed by the river, lake or ocean that’s significant to their people. Only after that do they name their tribe, their ancestors, their parents and then, finally, themselves.

The people of Whanganui, a major river springing from an active volcano in the central North Island, say, “I am the river and the river is me”. In 2017, the river was given legal personhood, securing Māori custom within a Western legal framework.

Much of what challenges New Zealanders about the Three Waters reform is about squaring Māori and European concepts of law. The Treaty of Waitangi, for example, guarantees Māori sovereignty, but also kaitiakitanga – the right to guardianship, rather than ownership, of their lands and natural features. Where property owners might wish to exercise their right to make decisions for maximising the use of their land, Māori aim to care for the land in order to maximise its sustainability long into the future.

Indigenous peoples worldwide carry thousands of years of intimate environmental knowledge – and Māori are no different. For that reason, many welcome how the Three Waters reform belatedly seeks to incorporate notions of respectfully coexisting with the natural world. In contrast to Wellingtonians’ contemporary struggle with burst pipes and polluted water, back in precolonial times, Māori “managed water levels in key lakes such as Te Waihora by digging trenches and drains to the ocean,” Huria explains, “in order to regulate the health of the water and its environment.”



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