Behind New Zealand’s clean, green image is a dirty truth
New Zealand’s waterways are some of the most degraded in the developed world. Will the Ardern government clean it up or will the Maori take control?
In New Zealand’s Southern Alps, braided rivers radiate turquoise from the glacial flows coming off snow-capped mountains. Breathtaking vistas like these have provided the backdrop for Hollywood epics like Lord of the Rings and underpin one of the world’s most recognised tourism campaigns, “100% Pure New Zealand”.
But behind New Zealand’s clean and green image is a dirty truth — its freshwater rivers are among the most polluted in the developed world. Last year, a government report found nearly 60 per cent of the country’s rivers carry pollution above acceptable levels, with 95 to 99 per cent of rivers in pastoral, urban and non-native forested areas contaminated.
Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government has renewed its promise to clean up the waterways but is facing pushback from one of the country’s biggest polluters — the powerful dairy industry. New Zealand’s pollution problem is pitting two of the country’s most valuable assets against each other: its global reputation as an unspoilt wilderness and its most lucrative export — dairy.
And now Ngāi Tahu, New Zealand’s wealthiest Maori tribe, is launching an unprecedented legal case seeking “rangatiratanga”, or chieftainship, over most of the South Island’s freshwater, a move that could reset who has authority over the country’s waterways.
Glacial melts to toxic flows
The clear waters running through the Mount Aspiring National Park in the ranges of the South Island are among the purest in the world.
Flows like this run from icy peaks down through winding rivers to the sea, in a process that can take up to a hundred years.
But further downstream, as rivers flow through farms and cities, they become some of the most polluted in the developed world.
In the Canterbury region, which includes the city of Christchurch, some scientists blame an explosion of dairy farming and large-scale irrigation since the late 1980s for polluting many of the region’s rivers.
From above, the Canterbury Plains is a patchwork of lush, green, grassy pastures. But it wasn’t always the case. A few decades ago the turf here was a browner hue. The plains were predominantly sheep country, until irrigation schemes and intensive synthetic fertiliser use enabled the mostly poor, stony soils to sustain dairy farming.
New Zealand’s irrigated land doubled in the 15 years from 2002 and now takes up half of the country’s freshwater use. Nowhere has the increase been as pronounced as in the Canterbury region. A government report released last year found Canterbury accounted for 64 per cent of New Zealand’s irrigated land in 2017.
They look lush and green now but before irrigation the Canterbury Plains were brown. Synthetic fertilisers have also helped farmers grow dairy pasture.
Foreign Correspondent: Tom Bannigan ACS
Cattle numbers on the Canterbury Plains have more than doubled in the past two decades. It’s been described as a “white gold rush”, as farmers converted mixed sheep and cropping pastures to more profitable dairy farms.
Dairy is now big business in New Zealand. Last year, as the country closed its international borders due to the coronavirus pandemic, the $15 billion dairy industry eclipsed tourism as New Zealand’s most valuable export. Fonterra, the country’s largest company, accounts for nearly a third of global dairy exports.
But some scientists have told Foreign Correspondent the growth of dairy farms has created a “perfect storm” for New Zealand’s rivers, with excess nutrients from fertiliser run-off, sediment loss, faecal effluent from cattle and reduced flows due to over-extraction by irrigators all damaging the health of freshwater systems.
At the heart of the Canterbury Plains lies the Selwyn River, a waterway that has become the poster child for all that has gone wrong with New Zealand’s freshwater.
The Selwyn experiences regular algal blooms, one of the most visible signs of excessive nutrients, including nitrates.
At the river mouth, the luminous green flow spills into Lake Ellesmere, one of the most polluted lakes in the country.
Further upstream, the pollution has created a toxic hazard putting human health at risk.
A half-hour drive from Christchurch, Lan Pham wades into the ankle-deep flow of the Selwyn, stopping a metre from the weed-choked bank. She slips on a pair of medical-grade rubber gloves.
This was once a popular swimming spot but is now littered with warning signs about algal blooms and is perennially listed on “not safe to swim” advisory websites.
Barely 20 metres from the public carpark, Ms Pham has found what she’s looking for — a patch of toxic cyanobacteria in the shallows of the rocky riverbed.
“It appears as these quite thick, velvety mats, usually either dark brown or black,” she says, reaching into the water and lifting up a piece.
“These toxic cyanobacteria, there’s been quite an increase in them across New Zealand over the last decade or so. They can be really deadly to dogs and also really harmful to humans.
“The dogs get attracted to the musty smell and it takes just one teaspoon for a dog to ingest that for it to actually die.”
The risk of harm for those who enter these waters is real. But what is also really concerning Ms Pham is that for a generation of Kiwis, a polluted river has become the norm.
“When we’re told that rivers are dangerous, it just enforces that disconnection with nature and the idea that we’re somehow separate,” she says. “That to actually address issues like this and fight for our public resources or try protect our public resources, that that’s somehow unreasonable because this is the baseline now.”
Ms Pham is determined to shift that baseline. She has spent the last 10 years working to protect freshwater life as an ecologist and, more recently, in local politics. In 2016, the then 29-year-old campaigned for the Canterbury council elections on a conservation and freshwater agenda while working on the remote Raoul Island in the Kermadecs.
Set to the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”, Lan Pham’s social media hit lampooned the former National government’s handling of New Zealand’s waterways.
With no profile and no ability to physically campaign, she leveraged social media, making videos mostly filmed by her husband, which she jokingly says they learned to make watching MTV music clips. One of her videos, set to the Taylor Swift song “Bad Blood”, garnered 150,000 views in a week before it had to be pulled off the internet for copyright reasons.
Ms Pham’s message has hit a nerve — she was the highest-voted candidate in the 2016 Canterbury regional elections and was re-elected in 2019.
“It is about our kids and grandkids,” she says. “We know that it’s just this totally unjust situation where we’re leaving them these huge astronomical issues, not only with freshwater, but climate to address. We need to solve this now and we need to treat it really seriously.”
Testing the waters
Joining Ms Pham at the Selwyn River, Dr Mike Joy swings a metal pole with a specimen jar wired to one end. He lowers it into the middle of the river, scoops up some water and quickly screws the lid back onto the plastic jar.
Dr Joy is a prominent freshwater ecologist and is testing the nitrate nitrogen levels in the water. Nitrates are colourless and odourless but Dr Joy expects the sample to confirm their presence.
He takes the sample to a real-time nitrate testing unit, which he purchased with some prize money a few years ago. It has allowed him to work with a small network of other scientists to test water samples around the country. He knows the nitrate level is going to be high but he’s still surprised by the result — 9.66 mg/L of nitrate nitrogen.
“Wow, that’s crazy,” he says. “The current national policy statement limit is 2.4 milligrams, so it’s four times that.”
Dr Joy attributes the high nitrate levels to dairy farming on the “light, stony soils” of the Canterbury Plains.
“[You’ve got] lots of cows on it, a lot of fertiliser and palm kernel going on to feed them,” he says. “Lots of urea, by urine going out and down through those soils into the aquifers and rivers … moving out towards the coast. And you’re getting nitrate levels just rising and rising really quickly. So great for farming but not so great for freshwater.”
The health of New Zealand’s rivers was a key issue at last year’s October election. A month before the poll, the Ardern government enacted the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, announcing it would fix the country’s water woes within a generation.
On the campaign trail, Ardern promised “material improvements” to the health of rivers and lakes within five years and that children would be able to swim in the water within a lifetime. She was re-elected in a landslide — a victory many credited to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic — but her freshwater reforms have not been quite so popular, drawing fire from leading scientists and dairy farmers alike.
Ninety-five to 99 per cent of rivers in pastoral, urban and non-native forested areas are polluted above water quality guidelines.
Foreign Correspondent: Tom Bannigan ACS
Dr Joy was part of the Science and Technical Advisory Group selected by the government to provide independent scientific advice on its freshwater reforms.
One of the key tasks for the advisory group was to work out a “nitrate bottom line” — the upper allowable limit for dissolved inorganic nitrate in New Zealand’s rivers. Dr Joy and others in the group pushed for a nitrate bottom line of 1 mg/L of nitrate nitrogen, which would bring New Zealand in line with the European Union and even China. That limit is the trigger for what’s called eutrophication — uncontrolled plant and algal growth caused by excess nutrients like nitrate in the water — which can cause fluctuations in oxygen levels, harming fish and other aquatic life.
“The farmers put nitrogen fertilizer on the paddocks to grow grass. What the nitrogen does in the river is it grows algae,” says Dr Joy.
“Algae photosynthesize, which means that they use oxygen during the night, they respire, and the oxygen levels drop right down and virtually everything dies. Then during the afternoon it comes back up and it gets dangerously high. Those fluctuations are what are really harmful for the life in the river.”
The New Zealand government chose to set the nitrate bottom line at 2.4 mg/L, claiming that limit would be non-toxic for 95 per cent of species. Dr Joy was livid, slamming the government’s numbers as “fake science” and arguing that eutrophication can kick in well below that level of nitrate.
The nitrate bottom line is a conundrum for the Ardern government. So far the reforms have left no-one happy. While ecologists argue the government set the level too high, farmers say it’s too low. Fonterra lobbied for a higher nitrogen nitrate limit of 3.8 mg/L. Dairy farmers say unless the government raises the nitrate bottom line, they will be forced out of business.
Light pinks are bouncing off the dew in a paddock in the heart of Canterbury where a herd of cattle is being brought to the shed for their daily milking.
Third-generation farmer John Sunckell hurries some of his 600-odd cows, tapping their rumps and “hup hupping” them along.
One of the 10,000 Fonterra co-op farmers across New Zealand, Mr Sunckell converted his mixed sheep and cropping farm to dairy in the early 1990s.
In the economic downturn of the 1980s, dairy became a lifeline for many of New Zealand’s farmers.
“We saw an agricultural decline right across the world,” he says. “I didn’t see it as a gold rush, you just looked at what you saw in front of you. Sheep prices were no good, wool prices were going down. Economically, we just looked at dairying and it seemed to be the future.”
Mr Sunckell is also a councillor in the Canterbury region. He’s been hearing from other dairy operators in his area about what the new nitrate bottom line of 2.4 mg/L will do to their businesses. The conversations are alarming. He and the other farmers have been running the numbers and say the government’s 2.4 mg/L bottom line will be the death of dairy farming as they know it.
Over the past few years, Mr Sunckell has been working hard to reduce his use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser but says it will be impossible to meet the government’s new nitrate limit.
“There’s no way, there’s nothing that we are doing today or have the ability to do as far as management and system changes, that will allow us to achieve that outcome.”
Mr Sunckell is worried what that will mean for regional communities.
“We will have a dislocation of thousands upon thousands of people and no support for the main streets of our small communities,” he says. “The whole fabric of our communities just disintegrates. It’s simple.”
Under pressure from all sides, the government has agreed to revisit its nitrate limit later this year but it’s unclear whether it will go lower or higher. Foreign Correspondent’s requests to interview Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Environment Minister David Parker were denied.
Meanwhile, there’s another group entering the fight over the future of New Zealand’s freshwater. Ngāi Tahu, the tribal group whose territory takes up most of the South Island, is taking legal action against the government for fiscal and regulatory authority over freshwater in its area.
A new challenge emerges
For Ngāi Tahu, the rivers and lakes are considered ancestors.
Each waterway has its own mauri, or life force, creating a deep connection between Maori people and the natural environment.
Generations have built a way of life around the waterways, boating and fishing in New Zealand’s pristine aquatic environment.
But after decades of degradation of the South Island’s rivers, Ngāi Tahu are seeking “authority and autonomy” over waterways in their tribal area.
On Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s national holiday, about 500 Ngai Tahu are gathering in the small seaside town of Bluff on the southern tip of the South Island.
The marae, or community building, is adorned with intricate carvings of ancestors on canoes. A Pōwhiri, or opening ceremony, begins at its doorstep in direct view of a row of elders, some in ceremonial dress, most in suits. The poor health of New Zealand’s rivers is dominating the day’s discussions.
“New Zealand has an image of itself that is wonderful and green, but underneath the thin facade are filthy waterways,” Gabrielle Huria, the head of the tribe’s freshwater unit, says in a panel discussion.
Also among the group is Dr Te Maire Tau, a historian and community leader who says that some of the freshwater rivers and lakes of the South Island are beyond degradation — they are on the verge of extinction.
A Ngai Tahu gathering on Waitangi Day was dominated by discussions on the future of New Zealand’s waterways.
Supplied: Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu
“Underlying all of our different rights is the word ‘pūtake’, which means the origin or the original source, but it also means ancestor,” Dr Tau says.
“Within our world, everything reaches back to our ancestors. You won’t get a waterway around here that we don’t claim descent from. For Maori, water is an ancestor, what are our obligations to it?”
That sense of obligation has led to an unprecedented high court challenge, of which Dr Tau is the lead claimant. Ngāi Tahu are seeking recognition of its rangatiratanga, or chieftainship, over freshwater.
Dr Tau, who is well-versed in tribal law, says rangatiratanga is difficult to describe in western terms, but effectively means the tribe is seeking regulatory and fiscal authority over the waterways. Ngāi Tahu’s claims over the waterways will be heard in court next year and tribes from the North Island are taking notice too, with one already joining the legal battle.
With the government, scientists and farmers seemingly at an impasse over the management of the rivers, Dr Tau says it’s time to let Maori take the lead.
“And we say we have authority — you haven’t, you have defaulted your obligations and that water falls under our rangatiratanga.”
For John Sunckell, the claim is concerning. He questions how it will affect dairy farms in the Canterbury region.
“So is rangatiratanga about ownership? Is it about control? Is it about joint management and governance? Where does it ultimately sit and where’s the end game? So I guess I’m nervous in the interim as to where it might land.”
Lan Pham hopes the Ngāi Tahu claim can move New Zealand towards environmental justice for future generations.
“My hope is that we’re actually getting to the point where we look more long-term … doing everything we can now as part of this generation to provide [the next generation] with the basics like clean water.”
Watch Foreign Correspondent’s ‘Troubled Waters’ tonight at 8pm on ABC TV and iview, and streaming live on Facebook and YouTube.
- Reporter: Yaara Bou Melhem
- Producer: Anne Worthington
- Video and photography: Tom Bannigan ACS
- Digital production: Matt Henry