Forgotten aspects of water

06 Sep 2019 Forgotten aspects of water image

The Government released its consultation on freshwater this week (click here).  We are now busy analysing it in detail and it is really too early to reach a view about the ultimate impact, especially before the consultation. 

Two of the background documents also released make interesting reading and provide insight into the thinking behind these proposals.  Te Kāhui Wai’s recommendations are strident.  They go to the core of the water issues facing New Zealand including: iwi/hapu water rights, a moratorium on additional discharges for the next 10 years, establishing a Te Mana o te Wai Commission, and developing a new water allocation system that conforms with iwi/hapu rights and obligations. 

The Freshwater Leaders Group’s recommendations include: bringing our water resources to a healthy state within a generation, taking immediate steps to stop our water becoming worse, and achieving an efficient and fair allocation system.  They also recommend an immediate stop to poor agricultural and forestry practices, and a complete halt to the loss of wetlands.  In summary, the reports are very similar in the outcomes they are seeking – immediate action to stop further degradation.

In all I’ve read, missing is how much water New Zealand gets each year and how much use we make of that water.  NIWA figures show that 80% of our water flows out to sea, 18% evaporates and only 2% is used.  My point is that there is more than enough water for everyone.  The problem is we are not being smart in our use of water and we are not planning for the impact of climate change – long dry summers. 

Storing water to keep rivers flowing and crops irrigated during dry spells will become essential.  Being more precise in the way we capture and use water will also have positive environmental outcomes by helping control leaching and sediment.  So it seems to me that the freshwater proposals should also be looking at efficient capture and use of water.  Additionally, how water is captured may turn out to be one way in which to determine rights and obligations.

This leads onto the next seemingly forgotten aspect.  To grow anything you need water.  Humans need water, animals need water and crops need water.  Without water, there is no food.  Without food there are no humans and animals.  My point is that we need to make sure we are providing water not only for our cities but for our farms, orchards and vegetable gardens. 

How we provide that water can also determine how waste water is dealt with.  With precision irrigation, there is no or little waste and no leaching.  To have precision irrigation, you need a good supply of water, which goes back to my first point.  This is in line (I think) with Te Kāhui Wai’s analysis, which is that the health of our wai is the health of our nation, with the primary obligation being to the health of the water which is essential to human health. 

Essential human health relies on healthy food, which in turn relies on water to grow our fruit and vegetables.  In essence, a balance will need to be reached between healthy water and the growing of healthy food.  The two are not incompatible.  With the right systems and locations, they are complementary but this will require different thinking.

The final possibly forgotten aspect of water quality is the part nature plays.  Torrential rain pollutes our water ways with sediment and leaching.  In many cases, this has nothing to do with rural or urban runoff.  Extreme weather events can turn back the good work already done. 

This goes back to my first point about capturing water during weather events to protect the quality of our water ways.  If by water capture we can mitigate the adverse effects of heavy rain, we will then make a significant difference to many of our rivers.  

So my plea is: let’s use our water more efficiently to enable better water quality.  My catch cry is: we can have both healthy water and healthy food.

Mike Chapman, Chief Executive