Anne Salmond: Water is too valuable to squander

The Whanganui River was the first in the world to be declared a legal person with its own identity and rights.
Income from water use must be used to preserve sources and not be captured by private interests.

By Anne Salmond

Across New Zealand, people from many different backgrounds have a deep and passionate connection with their waterways. From children who grow up swimming and playing in and beside streams, rivers and lakes, to those who fish for whitebait, eels or trout; from iwi with powerful connections with ancestral waterways, to kayakers, rowers and waka ama paddlers, rivers run through our lives. Rivers, waterfalls and lakes are part of who we are as Kiwis.

When streams or rivers dwindle and disappear; or are choked with sediment and forestry debris; or become toxic with algae and too dangerous to fish and swim in, many of us experience grief or anger. This was evident in the videos filmed by the 'Choose Clean Water' group of young people who travelled around New Zealand over the summer, talking with Kiwis in many different communities about the state of their waterways. They collected thousands of signatures on a petition to Parliament, asking that the Government ensure that our streams and rivers are safe to swim and fish in.

In response, the Minister for the Environment said it was not practical to achieve this, an answer that dismayed many Kiwis. Anger has also been aroused by stories about private companies extracting millions of gallons from local aquifers for derisory sums, selling the water offshore and making vast profits in the process.

There have been cartoons about rivers being piped into Fonterra tankers and carried away, or poisoned by pollutants. Large 'Iwi vs Kiwi' advertisements have been posted in national newspapers, warning New Zealanders that their rights to freshwater may be at risk from discussions being conducted behind closed doors between iwi representatives and the Crown.

Town vs country, businesses vs communities, iwi vs Kiwi, fresh water is becoming dangerously divisive in New Zealand. And yet, as the Prime Minister has said, "No-one owns the water." While some would argue differently, this is a position with a long history in both the common law and in ancestral tikanga in this country.

Sir William Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England" sum up the common law position: "Because water is a moveable, wandering thing, and must remain common by the law of nature ... I can only have a temporary property therein." Since it is "untamed", fresh water is held to exist in a state of nature, where property rights do not apply.

On the side of tikanga, the ancestral power of waterways has been eloquently expressed in many Waitangi Tribunal hearings. In the Whanganui River claim, for instance, an elder lamented, "It was with huge sadness that we observed dead tuna [eels] and trout along the banks of our awa tupua [ancestral river]. The only thing that is in a state of growth is the algae and slime. The great river flows from the gathering of mountains to the sea. I am the river, the river is me. If I am the river and the river is me - then emphatically, I am dying."

If I am the river and the river is me - then emphatically, I am dying.
Whanganui elder

This living link between Whanganui iwi and their ancestral river, along with the status of the river as He Awa Tupua (a river with ancestral power) was recognised in the Whanganui River settlement when, for the first time in the world, a river was declared to be a legal person with its own identity and rights.

Continued below.

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In both traditions then, water is seen as having a life of its own, independent of people. A river cannot be owned, although we all may have a stake in it. Use rights, rather than property rights, apply.

It follows that if no-one owns the water, those hotly divisive Iwi vs Kiwi debates about ownership are irrelevant. Instead, the question turns upon use rights, and how these can best be managed, in the interests of waterways and people alike.

Many are suggesting pricing as a better way of managing water. Where the use of water leads to private benefit - for irrigators, bottling companies, electricity generators, other commercial users or households, for example, that may well apply.

This flow of income, however, must be devoted to both waterways and the community in general. It must not be captured by private interests.

One way of achieving this would be to set up a Waterways Commission, perhaps headed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to ensure its independence from vested interests, funded by user charges for fresh water.

This Commission would be charged with working with communities - iwi and Kiwi side by side - to take care of waterways across New Zealand. It would be informed by both science and tikanga, and tasked to assist iwi, private owners and public bodies in the restoration of their local waterways (aquifers, groundwater, springs, streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, estuaries and harbours).

In this way, everyone gains - both waterways and people. Farmers and other private owners, iwi and community groups alike can seek assistance for bush buffers and catchment plantings, and waterways can be properly managed and restored. There will be significant gains for biodiversity, carbon management, and New Zealand's reputation as a 'clean, green' country. Kiwis and tourists can again enjoy the pleasures of safe swimming, paddling and fishing in our streams, lakes and rivers.

If there are better solutions, now is the time for them to be debated. This should happen out in the open, where ideas are 'blown about by the wind, and shone on by the sun' - as on a marae, or in a fair and open democratic society. We all have a stake in our waterways and in the future of our children and grandchildren. We must all have a say in how these controversial matters are resolved.

Debate on this article is now closed.

Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond is a former New Zealander of the Year and the patron of Te Awaroa: 1000 Rivers Foundation.

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- New Zealand
12:21 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
Thank you Hemi, altho I am ashamed to admit that as a pakeha raised in the same era as Don Brash I hardly understood a word of it!

He just wrote: "But to suggest that Governor Hobson really saw himself, on behalf of Queen Victoria, entering into a partnership with a large number of chiefs, many of whom could neither read nor write, has to be a total nonsense"

There you have it, the white man's attitude writ large!

Add the fact that there were two versions of the treaty & then appreciate that the white man goes by the "letter of the law" which was imposed thanks to the Maori having no conception of what it meant. (As well as all the other trash they were conned into believing culturally.)

Got to snort with contempt further when I note many of those decrying Maori privilege are the first to say - re current immigration - that people who go to others' countries should respect/obey their customs!


- Glen Eden
12:21 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
With weather patterns evolving like they are we may well be in for more extreme weather. We will have drought and then flood, like recently and most years. There doesn't seem to be a shortage of water over time, just nowhere big enough to store it. Another reservoir or two would not go amiss. As to cost we do have to buy top soil. Is there a parallel there.


- Riccarton
12:21 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
Gross exaggerations. Of the 90 rivers in the OECD that were tested a few years ago the Waikato, the Clutha and the Waitaki - all in dairying areas were in the top four for overall cleanliness, freedom for pollution.


- New Zealand
12:21 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
The fact that corporations can decant our water, for a pittance, then ship it offshore should give pause to every thinking Kiwi in the land.

Water will be the new oil, the new battleground, the new tipping point - and we let overseas interests take it, simply because Key mindlessly brays, over and over, 'nobody owns the water', and uses foul and underhanded means to sway and frighten the public (iwi v kiwi etc).

Key needs to stand down; a US/corporate shill, selling NZ out from under our feet!


- Penrose
12:20 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
Water for profit from a natural resource is a criminal actvity..and whoever owns the land and offering to the landowner....Limite the amount of water taken rather than signing a contract for 40 years...while taken the cleanwater..the river and lakes getting polluted...


12:20 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
It would be a much better idea to research economic development than talk about centuries old fables that are little more than a figment of imagination.


- Australia
12:20 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
Recycled Water and Political Guts.

Adelaide treats all of its sewage. 30% of the treated sewage is then pumped to storage underground. It is then pumped up and used by market gardeners, orchard growers, farmers, vineyards, factories and homes.

The remaining 60% of treated sewage is in future to be pumped up into the cities storage dams for recycling back into the public water supply.
The ONLY reason this will done in Adelaide is the Political Guts to do so. And being the last down-stream city to use Murray river water.

On its journey to the ocean various towns extract the Murray River's water, treat it, flush their toilets with it, retreat it and pipe it back into the river. Countless fish, birds and animals s*** in and and die in the river. Water remains water. It can be cleaned and reused.

The current wasteful practices of cities such as Auckland, Wellington, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth to name a few continue only because they have plenty of water, don't like the idea of drinking recycled water, and lack the Political Will to recycle.

The Whanganui River has a problem. Mt Ruapehu's toxic crater lake pours deadly poisonous chemicals into it. No solution to that


- New Zealand
12:19 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
Personally I think bottled water, in a country that doesn't need it, is a rort. That's not to say we shouldn't be encouraged to carry water sometimes - preferably in reusable light metal bottles.

But either we should refuse to let ANY overseas company obtain it except for local purposes, or we should sell it like gold - which it very shortly will be.

And our own bottlers should sell it like gold, with the proviso that they allow, say, 25% to be sent free to the refugee camps.

For our bottlers, that's overseas. Altho if they sell it like gold in NZ that would be sensible seeing only the rich should be silly enough to buy it. Again, exception, supply free to EQ & other disasters zones!
As for the pollution issue - way out of control. WE are not allowed to defecate in swimming pools - why should cows be allowed to defecate in our natural swimming pools? Not to mention chemicals.

Le Fox

- Auckland
12:19 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
To say no one owns water on the personal sense is correct, the problem is commercial use using the free water for profit and drying up a commodity leaving others without is another.

Depending on where the water is, fresh water in a stream or river eventually flowing to the sea, is different to a bore or underground water table which is shared by properties in the area.

When councils take their responsibility and force properties or commercial industries to put in sewerage plants, Evironcycles so clean water is then either pumped back onto their property for garden use the better rivers will be.

All industrial waste forget this stupid carbon credit b/s get these industrial entities to push all their waste into the commercial plants to recycle that waste.

The amount of money is secondary to the amount of clearing of the water sources.

Anyone on any of the rivers, creeks, should do some cleaning up around their part of the river, instead of telling the gov to do it.

Everyone needs to take responsibility and that includes absolutely everyone no matter what cultural back ground they might have.


- Riccarton
12:19 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
It is annoying that people can make extravagant claims with no knowledge and research and get away with it. The amount of bottled water exported from New Zealand in a whole year equals what flows into the sea from one of our rivers in 1.5 minutes.

There is no case anywhere of a water bottling company polluting or exceeding their take. There are no excessive profits made from the business - it is highly competitive and requires large amounts spent on promotion to survive. That can be backed up by actual figures.

The industry employs many people, earns a heap of foreign exchange and uses lots of local suppliers.

Leave the water bottlers alone unless you have facts and concentrate on real polluters like Hamilton City.


- Waikato
12:19 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
"If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money" - Professor Guy McPherson.

As for allowing foreigners to TAKE our pure aquifer water, I'm not at all sure that I could come up with a much more stupid thing for us to do.

I do not expect this government to do anything, it would mean they would have to stop sitting on their hands and the subsequent pins and needles would just about be unbearably painful for them.

Kiwi Rambled

- England
12:18 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
My heart embraces this concept.
My hands have worked the buffers and catchment plantings.
My feet know the joy of clean water between the toes.
My lips are moistened by mountain streams.
My soul knows the joy of tumbling rapids.
But my mind does not trust the leaders of our country.
So driven by avarice.
To do what is right.

You see minding all our waterways for all the people will do little to foster the interests of the cronies of this government. As John Key smiles, so the sheeple follow.


- St Heliers
12:18 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
Good article. I agree nobody owns the water in NZ, according to common law. However local and central government certainly control water rights of our large rivers and aquifers. This is close to public ownership in a practical sense.

Government already consult a variety of people in doing this, but no group should have special privileges in this consultation. Everyone should have an equal say, to ensure the resource is democratically managed.

Government should not be giving water away to exporters, or selling at a very low price. Water should at least be "treated" with the same principles that apply to publicly owned assets, and NZ interests should therefore come first.

We dont give away rights to minerals, we require a levy. The same should apply to water.

Grahame S.

12:18 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
Thank you Anne. May your unwavering altruistic faith in whats inherently right for both maori and pakeha mainstream New Zealanders never end.

Nevertheless, as quoted under this sickening corrupt National governments hi rotate too hard basket brush offs we are theoretically urinating into the proverbial southerly if we expect change anytime soon.

Whats required is civil disobedience akin to what led up the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly.

"Water is too valuable to squander"...and this National government isn't.


12:18 pm Wednesday 27 April 2016
Until we stem the corruption and greed which is politicians, then nothing will change. We need a complete over haul of our political system and the abuses that are occur daily over which the average new zealand citizen has no voice.
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