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Source: Ministry for the Environment

This summer, as people around Aotearoa New Zealand visit their favourite rivers and lakes, there’s reason to feel more positive about the future for our waterways, says Ministry for the Environment Deputy Secretary Martin Workman.

“We are now putting into practice a new system for freshwater management that starts with the requirement to uphold Te Mana o Te Wai. This means first protecting the life-supporting capacity of the water. The second obligation is to provide for human health needs, and only then can water be used for other purposes, provided it does not affect the mauri of the water,” Mr Workman explains.

“This does not mean all rivers and lakes have to return to a natural, pristine state, but it does mean being respectful about how much water we take and careful with the types and amount of pollutants that we allow into the water.” 

There are also new requirements to apply a Māori lens to decision-making on freshwater. Regional Councils already work with tangata whenua but are now expected to actively involve iwi and hapū every step of the way.

Dr Mahina-a-rangi Baker, a member of the government’s advisory group Kahui Wai Māori who specialises in environmental planning and science says it’s a shift from seeing Māori as a submitter to a process, to ensuring iwi and hapū are actively involved in decision-making.

“It will ensure we take care of water, people and the environment as an integrated whole.”

This is consistent with what all New Zealanders want, says Kahui Wai Māori member from Ngai Tahu Riki Ellison.

“There’s often a perception that iwi and hapū values are separate from everybody else’s values, but I think there’s increasing awareness that there’s a lot of crossover. There’s a big area in the middle where we all share the same values, we want clean waterways, we want our kids to be able to go down to the river for a swim, we want to make sure there’s enough for today and tomorrow, we want to be able to catch healthy food, whether that’s trout or tuna.”

Dr Baker says, in practice, upholding te Mana o Te Wai means taking steps like protecting wetlands, ensuring fish passage up and down catchments, ensuring that practice on-farm is improving to reduce contamination and being more conscious in our decision making with regards to freshwater.  It also means thinking differently about urban development, such as using water sensitive design to reduce stormwater contamination, and ongoing investment in upgrading wastewater networks to reduce overflows.

At a practical level, the Ministry for the Environment is working with Regional and Unitary Councils and Kahui Wai Māori to implement the new requirements.

“There is already a lot happening across New Zealand to protect and restore our waterways, and councils have been working with tangata whenua and communities to make long-term plans,” says Mr Workman.

“But this is not business as usual. Over the next few years, iwi/hapū and communities will be involved with their Regional Councils in ensuring the long-term vision for their waterways upholds Te Mana o Te Wai, and they have plans to achieve that vision.”  

Martin Workman says it will take years to see the full impact of the new requirements, but the direction is now clear.