31, Aug, 2015

Action urged to improve water quality, health and aquatic life

Category: ECO Inc

How to improve water quality and the social, cultural, and economic gains to New Zealand from doing so was the focus of the ECO conference.

The Conference in Christchurch Friday 28-Sunday 30 August on Dialogues on Freshwater - Navigating impasses & new approaches was organised by Environment and Conservation Organisations of New Zealand (ECO).

Vowing to join together to  tackle declining water quality, and losses of our native animals and life in water ways, conference attendees heard from Maori and Pakeha specialists and reprentatives.

Eminent Maori jurist Sir Edward Taihakurei Durie gave the opening address.  He  presented new proposals for water allocation.  These are founded on the principle of public good and restoration of cultural relationships and knowledge. 

That proposal would give priority provision of water for ecosystems, and domestic uses over commercial uses.  Commercial users of water should pay for their use and recognise the special customary use rights of hapu or iwi.

Funds  from these payments would then be used to protect and restore the water quallity and life in the lakes, rivers and wetlands and to help Maori youth and others to reconnect with their ancestral waters and management and cultural connections.

Dr Linda Te Aho, University of the Waikato,  applauded the advances that were occurring through Treaty Settlements with the Waikato and Whanganui River.  She said the Whanganui River will have its own legal personality recognised and protected  by legally appointed  advocates but more needs to be done to redress the legacy of harm and to adopt the principle of responsibility.

More than  100 iwi representatives, specialists, members of the public and ECO member organisation delegates from around New Zealand attended  the meeting.

Hon David Caygill, Deputy Chair of the Environment Canterbury government appointed Environment Canterbury commissioners, listened carefully and briefly spoke to the conference, promissing to engage further after a vigorous discussion.

Just prior to the conference there was an admission by the Environment Canterbury that it is not on track to protect safe drinking water for Cantabrians because of agricultural intensification.

Dr Alistair Humphrey, the Canterbury Medical Officer of Health, highlighted the many risks to Canterbury residents’ health.  He said people do die from poor water quality. 

He said nitrate pollution causes “blue babies” who may die or suffer life-long serious health harm. Polluted water and inadequately treated water also causes deaths and harms to health from water-borne microorganisms such as toxic E. coli, coupled with inadequate water quality infrastructure.

He documented the striking reduction of  drinking water quality between 2011 and 2015 in Canterbury in nutrient overloaded waterways and poorly maintained water reticulation systems.

He said that this was of serious medical concern. 

The conference was told that toxic cyanobacteria blooms from nutrients overloaded waterways already killed dogs and other animals and that it is only a matter of time before a child dies from contact with toxic algal growths.

Other eminent speakers documented the need to better manage water, settle customary interests in water, designate clear responsibilities, and restore degraded freshwater systems.  A variety of options were canvassed.

Freshwater scientists documented the declining trend in water quality and native water life, particularly in the lowland rivers.

Recent water standards changes by the Ministry for the Environment, the conference heard,  had reclassified heavily polluted water as acceptable which means that many New Zealanders are unaware of the dangerous levels of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in our water. And the risks that this has for them and for native life.

Prof David Hamilton, from Waikato University, said that the nutrient levels in Waikato lakes are worse than anywhere he had seen in the world but the standards for those are reasonable measures.  In contrast, the conference was told the river water standards are dangerously lax and allow pollution well in excess of intenraitonal WHO standards 

Dr Hamilton and Dr Joy highlighted flaws with the National Objectives Framework for Water, especially for rivers, which allow dangerous and damaging levels of pollution.

Vet and agricultural specialist Dr Alison Dewes pointed out that dairy farmers are suffering from low dairy prices, high input costs and high debt levels.  She showed that those “ahead of the game” are running stock at much lower cow stocking densities than many and are profitable and better able to withstand price falls with lower input costs and much better soil, water and health impacts.

She said the cows were also better off with lower input, lower density dairying which provided fewer harmful effects on the environment.

The ECO AGM endorsed the recommendations from the Society for Conservation Biology (Oceania) for the management of water.  This included “chang[ing] legislation to adequately protect native and endemic fish species and invertebrates.”

The AGM also supported a ban on fracking in New Zealand.  This resolution was passed after extensive consultation with ECO members.

Other resolutions called on the government to release the text of economic and trade agreements, and to restore democracy to Canterbury by restoring Council elections.


A.      Sir Edward Taihakurei Durie, is the co-chair of the New Zealand Maori Council, retired High Court Judge, former Chief Judge of the Maori Land Court and former Chair of the Waitangi Tribunal gave his public address on Friday night 28 August 2015. 

B.            Six clear priorities to protect New Zealand’s freshwater biodiversity put forward by the Society for Conservation Biology (Oceania) are:

  1. change legislation to adequately protect native and endemic fish species and invertebrates, including those harvested commercially and recreationally;

  2. protect habitat critical to the survival of New Zealand’s freshwater species;

  3. include river habitat to protect ecosystem health in the National Objectives Framework for the National Policy Statement on freshwater;

  4. establish monitoring and recovery plans for New Zealand’s threatened freshwater invertebrate fauna;

  5. develop policy and best management practices for freshwater catchments which includes wetlands, estuaries and groundwater ecosystems and;

  6. establish, improve and maintain appropriately wide riparian zones that connect across entire water catchments

Source: Elston E., Anderson-Lederer, R. Death R.G., and Joy M.K. (2015). The plight of New Zealand’s freshwater species. Conservation Science Statement No. 1, 14pp. Society for Conservation Biology (Oceania), Sydney.

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