Troy Brockbank

Troy Brockbank, Kaitohutohu Matua Taiao / Senior Environmental Consultant looks at an alternative approach to the management of water

Ko te wai te ora o ngā mea katoa – Water is the life of all things

Wai (Water) is the essence of all life and the world’s most precious resource. It’s of high importance to Māori, as it is the life giver of all things, a precious taonga (treasure), part of our whakapapa (genealogy), part of our identity.

Water is under increasing pressure due to the strain we’ve put on the world, including rapid urbanisation, kai (food) production challenges, aging infrastructure and climate change. It is essential that our water resources are well managed to deal with this strain.

For ease of management, water is often split, reclassified and categorised into multiple forms; such as three-waters; drinking water, stormwater, wastewater – forms of water associated with service and delivery infrastructure; and freshwater and marine water – forms of water associated with the natural environment. This allows issues regarding water infrastructure to be managed effectively in their segregated forms. However, this approach seldom considers the health of the whole water system, and the mechanics of the water cycle, and instead manages these waters in isolation of each other.

Through urbanisation, we have managed to disrupt the flow of water, in particular ngā roimata o ngā Atua (rainfall), the tears of Ranginui (sky father) for Papatūānuku (earth mother). Altering our urban environments by laying concrete pavement, asphalting roads and constructing roofs means we have made the land impervious to water and prone to the accumulation of pollutants from contaminant generating activities. We have purposefully piped and culverted our waterways – the arteries of Papatūānuku, and disrupted the journey not only mai te rangi ki te whenua (from the sky to the land), but mai uta, ki tai (from the ridgeline, to the sea).

As a result, many of our local water resources have depleted over time and this has impacted a range of traditional practices. This is especially true for the harvesting of resources, wild foods and plants, where stocks have been depleted or lost, or where discharges of wastewater and stormwater make wild food consumption and recreation unsafe, and subject to tapu (cultural prohibition). We have managed to turn our back on our waters and lost our connections not only to wai (water), but consequently also to the whenua (land).

We recognise that our actions and inactions have had consequences for our environment – we tell Papatūānuku that she is sick, but we need to tell her that we love her. We need to show her that we care. For Māori, the health of the waterway is connected to the health of the people. We are one and the same. If the water is unhealthy, we are unhealthy.

Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au – I am the river, the river is me.

Our current approach is to manage water in isolation and as a service to be provided is wrong and it is not working. What if we choose to change this approach? What if it is not the environment or water that needs to be managed but our behaviours and our relationship to water. It is us, the people that need managing.

We need to respect water, to allow nature to create the environment where waterways and their associated ecosystems can be strong and healthy. This doesn’t have to mean compromising on development to meet the needs of our growing communities, but it does mean developing in a way that recognises the need to ensure our interaction with Papatūānuku comes from a place of mutual respect not dominance; ensuring there is harmonic balance.

The good news is that this is happening. One example is Auckland Council’s Water Strategy which has proposed a shift in the water management paradigm to remove people from the centre and reinstate water as the central focus. The strategy’s purpose is to enable Te mauri o te wai (the life supporting capacity of water) and prioritise ecosystems that are healthy, protected and enhanced – leading to the restored hauora (health) of our waterways, ensuring the mauri (life force) is enhanced and not further degraded.

This shift involves a different way of thinking, one founded in a holistic, culturally-enhanced water sensitive design approach. By incorporating indigenous understanding alongside modern knowledge we can create a successful, long-term solution to enhancing the life supporting capacity of water as it returns to Papatūānuku.

Integrating core water sensitive design values with mātauranga Māori (indigenous knowledge) and principles of tikanga Māori (traditional indigenous practices) provides a holistic, culturally enhanced approach to protecting our water for future generations.

Our water issues are urgent and the challenge is to act now before it is too late; to repair the mistakes and damages of yesterday, so future generations do not have to atone for our misinformed actions. There is an opportunity for us in our personal and professional capacities to adjust our thinking in a way that will allow us to prepare a future ready tomorrow.

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua – Land is permanent while people come and go