The Ghosts of Waters Three

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This year Aotearoa has been visited by the ghosts of waters three. The ghost of water-supply haunts the whole of Te Ika-a-Māui (North Island), Rēkohu (Wharekauri/Chatham Islands) and parts of Te Waipounamu (South Island). Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) and Waikato, in particular have been in drought for quite some time and are facing a dire situation. Murihiku (Southland), cursed by the poltergeist of stormwater, has experienced severe floods that caused widespread damage. Meanwhile in Pōneke (Wellington), the phantom of wastewater possesses government agencies to perform an excremental circus over water contamination. Like old scrooge our masters have through negligence, contempt, greed and vanity brought this torment upon us all. The Auditor-General has stated there are fundamental issues with water management at every level of government. So now the three spectres, stormwater, wastewater, and water-supply, do haunt these lands and warn of dire consequences should we not change our ways.

The first presence we felt was the ghost of stormwater’s thundering roar carrying us to Murihiku, where torrential downpours unleashed devastating floods. Roads were washed away, whole communities evacuated. 1,100 properties were flooded, a state of emergency declared and 10,000 tonnes of toxic waste almost unleashed upon the already hard hit community in Mataura. “Unprecedented”, “record”, these are some of the words being used to describe these floods. Yet it seems increasingly that the recently unprecedented becomes the norm; that records exist only to be broken with greater frequency. Climate change is a multiplier of known risks. This means that places that experience higher than average rainfall and are at risk of flooding, such as Murihiku, can expect more frequent and more devastating floods. For residents this is bad news, but what is worse are the reports highlighting significant wetland loss in the region as well. Wetlands act to limit the impact of inundation, a sponge absorbing and mitigating the impact. Continued draining of wetlands, primarily for dairy farming, has weakened this buffer, increasing the impact of flooding. Together wetland loss and climate change paint a grim picture of increased, and more damaging floods to come.

The solution is clear, instead of trying to squeeze as much profits from the land as possible, by squeezing as many cows onto it as possible, we must look at returning farmland to wetland. This is something already being done elsewhere. In the Netherlands large areas are already being given back to the sea in efforts to preserve elsewhere. Revegetation upstream can provide further mitigation. Again this requires that we stop trying to extract endless profits from the land. Finally, co-ordinated relocation may be necessary so that less people live in harm’s way.

In urban areas the stormwater risk comes from increased rainfall and impervious surfaces. Cloudburst events in particular put immense strain on stormwater infrastructure (which is often sorely inadequate), threatening quite serious flash floods as streets turn to streams. Again, climate change is a multiplier of known risks. We can expect more of these events. Elsewhere in the world this is being treated with deep concern. In Copenhagen they are redesigning their streets and roads so that they can be streams in such events. Public squares are designed to become lakes. This requires massive infrastructure reconstruction to achieve. However, as the next ghost will show us, we are a long way from putting the required resources into maintaining such infrastructure.

The second ghost is wastewater. This ghost takes us to the Pōneke circus where chief clown Wellington Water has declared that people should stop being so picky about all the sewage in their streams and harbour. Never mind the danger to human health, people just put up with these things back in the day. Perhaps then it is a good time to remember that up until the late 1990s Wellington still let sewage flow directly into the harbour. It could be said that 30 years ago the Council finally got their shit together and put effort into ensuring that wastewater was properly treated. Since then however things have really gone down the toilet. Crumbling, obsolete and overcapacity infrastructure strains to support our growing cities. While Wellington may be in the news for now, Auckland is just glad it is not the butt of the joke this time around. Similar stories of toxic inner-city beaches being all too common in Tāmaki as well, and indeed are mirrored elsewhere. So, while different agencies kick up a stink about who will foot the bill for basic maintenance, things are set to get worse. 

Next is the ghost of water-supply, whose presence we all appreciated but whose absence is truly shocking. For those in Te Tai Tokerau and elsewhere water truly has been phantasmal. Despite the start of autumn rains, the drought persists, and indeed the longer it persists the harder it becomes to recover. Unless we receive weeks of consistent rain the harm caused by the drought may not be healed before summer comes around again. It cannot be stated enough, climate change is a multiplier of known risks. For Te Tai Tokerau and the east of Te Ika-a-Māui this means hotter, drier summers with increased risk of drought. Wheas in the South the problem will be too much water, the North will get not enough.

When I attended a lecture discussing this particular issue the solutions offered were revealing. Firstly the cows have to go. The insatiable drive for white gold, and the profits it brings, are pushing us to the brink of ecosystem collapse. The vast irrigation projects required to allow dairy in places where dairy should never be already absorbs vast quantities of water, which combined with the run-off and pollution is destroying our waterways and aquifers. In the future the question about economics vs environment will be more simple. There simply won’t be the water for them to drain from the whenua. The question will be whether we allow them to destroy the ecosystem in their attempts to keep going in the face of reality, or whether we adapt. Other modes of agricultural production and reforestation are some of the options we can turn to to both health the land and mitigate the harm caused by climate change.

However, even without the cows the problem may not be solved. Urban water supplies will also be put under strain. In the case of Tauranga the solution posed during the lecture was more drastic by far. In a few decades time there won’t be enough water to support the urban population, which has grown significantly in recent years. Fortunately, said the planners, the problem provides its own solution. Most of those who had moved in recent years were retirees. Therefore the plan is simple, wait for them to die off and let the population go down by itself. It is a callous response, but sadly not an isolated example. There are similar plans for South Dunedin as sea level, and associated groundwater rise, makes that suburb uninhabitable. The request made to those of us living in harm’s way is please die. Please die, so that we do not have to pay to help you.

We cannot let our future be decided by the lottery of death. We cannot let such callousness be what drives us forward. We should not plan to die, we should plan to live. The ghosts of waters three have shown us a grim reality. Now comes the time for us to change our ways. It’s time we take power out of the hands of the scrooges of the world. It’s time we organise our society, not for profits, but for human need. Instead of trying to suck as much milk from the land as possible, we must work within the bounds of ecosystem capacity. Instead of  putting off much needed infrastructure repairs to save money, we must ensure that our communities have access to clean drinking water, that our water is managed effectively. Instead of hoping people die so that we do not have to relocate them, we must ensure that displaced people have homes they can move to.

Water is essential to our life, it is time we managed it accordingly.