Saturday, September 03, 2016

Water, water everywhere, nor any a drop to drink...

Two cases highlight how governance of our water is struggling for credibility.

First, in Hawkes Bay where over 5,000 residents of Havelock North (pop. 14,000) were struck by gastroenteritis after drinking the local water. The cause of the outbreak was E. coli but the source of the E. coli is not yet confirmed, though the intensification of farming (and particularly dairying) is thought by many commentators to be the problem.

Minister for the Environment Nick Smith in his recent State of the Environment speech at Lincoln University acknowledges Maori have an integral role in ensuring water quality:

Water issues often come down to a clash of values between environmentalists and land owners. Maori have a foot in both camps and are proving to be valuable bridge builders over these troubled waters.

Initial data from GNS shows water in the Havelock aquifer was less than a year old when it should have been 50, which suggests an infrastructure problem which ultimately links back to governance and, dare I say, ownership.

Havelock North residents walking for water right now! (Sept 3rd).

Now we all now the NZ government's position: no one owns the water. Well, that's working out great for sales of toilet paper in Havelock North but most of us forsee only more costs and risks. Des Ratima of the Takitimu District Maori Council is quite explicit about the fault:

"The aquifier sits below recognised polluted river called the Tukituki which comes down from central Hawkes Bay full of faeces, both human and animal. That's how central Hawkes Bay disposes of its sewage. It's been told by regional council to sort that out and so they've gone from river to land based sewerage dispersal. Well, that's just arrogant again because that's finding its way back into the water system,"

Maori are not alone in thinking human and industry waste need to be separated from the land and water we source our sustenance from. Papatuanuku is being maltreated and like any mother, when she is sick, we are not well.

Another example is from Canada where oil leaking into the North Saskatchewan River has exposed local governance - private and public -as not being up to the task of protecting the most basic resource, namely clean water.

I visited Saskatoon in the second week of August and, by chance, met two First Nations activists working to draw attention to the disaster (languaging is important; 'spill' doesn't describe the catastrophe that oil brings to socio-ecological systems).

Emil Bell and Tyrone Tootootsis have established the Kisiskatchewan Water Alliance Network. Several organisations have endorsed KWAN, including Idle No More, the Saskatchewan Environmental Society and the North Saskatchewan River Basin Council.

Emil Bell (l) and Tyrone Tootootsis (r).
Emil staged a hunger strike to protest the oil spill.


A collaboration between Idle No More, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Council of Canadians, the National Aboriginal People’s Circle, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (Prairie Region) led to a report on the disaster. One of the findings is that the James Smith Cree Nation need to be supported in its effort to mitigate and monitor the damage to their traditional territory.

We might hope that Ngati Kahungunu will also be supported to ensure water improves within their territory. 

A significant advance in both Hawkes Bay and Saskatchewan would be the formal incorporation of Indigenous voices into the governance of water. Disasters such as the poisoning of Havelock North and North Saskatchewan River provide the opportunity to reinsert Indigenous voices where they should never have been excluded.

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Simon Lambert

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