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Green algal bloom in a small freshwater lake in New Zealand (Photo: Massey University
Green algal bloom in a small freshwater lake in New Zealand (Photo: Massey University

OPINIONScienceNovember 6, 2020

NZ embraced the science on Covid-19. So why are we spurning it on water?

Green algal bloom in a small freshwater lake in New Zealand (Photo: Massey University
Green algal bloom in a small freshwater lake in New Zealand (Photo: Massey University

Our failures threaten the wellbeing of all of us – and our descendants, writes Mike Joy.

Our failure to protect the ecosystems on which we depend on for our wellbeing is galling. A raft of recent Ministry for the Environment  reports on New Zealand’s environmental performance reveal that far from improving, we are not even slowing the decline in the quality of our natural environment. This fact is not academic. These failures directly threaten the wellbeing of each and every one of us and unfairly restrict the options for our descendants.

Very early on the Ardern-led government signalled a commitment to a precautionary, science-led approach to tackling Covid. Like most New Zealanders I am very pleased they took this approach, one that proved to be crucial to the largely Covid-free life we now enjoy.

Contrast, however, the rapid science-driven, evidence-driven Covid response to the ongoing failures to protect freshwaters, culminating in the long-awaited essential freshwater work programme reform package released a few months ago. Years in the making, involving multiple advisory groups, it concluded with the announcement of a National Policy Statement. That statement is big on rhetoric and expectations, but short on anything remotely resembling concrete actions to actually change anything.

It makes no recommendations key to ensuring achievement of its goal to clean up freshwaters. Despite a process which, much like the Covid response, saw engagement with the scientific specialists in the field, the freshwater policy statement lacks the measurable and applicable numeric limits that the scientific consensus stressed were vital to make the stated goals result in cleaner freshwater. (Disclosure: I was a member of the Minister’s Scientific Technical Advisory Group on Freshwater Policy.)

The advice to the minister for the environment, supported by volumes of research from the scientists he appointed, was unequivocal: in order to protect the health of waterways and the health of drinking water for humans, specific limits on the amounts of nutrient leached into our freshwater were required. The limits were key to achieving real change. Far from being extreme, implementation of the standards would have simply brought New Zealand into line with the rest of the world – like China, for example. These limits were, however, not included in the new policy statement. The minister seems to have ignored the overwhelming desire from the public for cleaner and healthier freshwater and caved in to concerted industry pressure to further delay implementing them. Freshwater is never today; it is always tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow.

With no ecologically defensible numeric limits for pollution of freshwater, discretion around implementation is left to councils. History has shown that local enforcement is a recipe for failure. As an analogy, imagine if there were no posted road speed limits and a massively under-funded and inexpert police had to justify penalising every speeding driver case by case. That’s what leaving it to councils mean. It is worsened in the freshwater situation because the policing is done by councils who are inevitably politicised and distracted by multiple roles other than environmental protection. The sad but inevitable outcome is that the decision to delay limits on nutrient loads in waterways will result in a continued decline of fresh and coastal water quality. There will be a corresponding decline in the wide array of ecological, cultural, social and economic values that a healthy environment supports.

The precautionary commitment used in our Covid response has notably been absent from environmental management. History has shown that our environmental policy has been reactive, only appearing after the damage has been done.

This failure to enact legislation that would reverse freshwater declines is particularly egregious given the public interest in change. Multiple polls before the election showed freshwater was New Zealanders number one environmental concern and at the election three years before freshwater management had been an important election issue so there was a clearly a mandate for significant change.

It seems clear that this opportunity to do better for freshwater was undermined by the tactics of special-interest lobbyists claiming to represent farmers. For example, in the build-up to the NPS release the dairy industry released  grossly exaggerated claims that the tightening of environmental standards for freshwater would threaten New Zealand’s economic recovery while ignoring the fact that clean water and a healthy environment is the foundation of our current and future economic wellbeing. Furthermore, their economic impact claims fly in the face of modelling by MfE showing that implementing the freshwater reforms would rather than threaten our economy would result in a net benefit for New Zealand of $3.8 billion.

The continual and unnecessary synthetic nitrogen and chemical dependency for agriculture, encouraged by government failures to limit its use is only making things worse for farmers. It means increasing debt and further degrading soils, reducing the farming sector’s resilience in the face of a changing climate. This is accelerating the race to the bottom. Putting short-term interests ahead of long-term wellbeing will, in the long-term, hurt many family farms and farmers.

The irony is that most of the nitrogen polluting waterways and drinking water is synthetic, made from fossil fuels. For most of the last century New Zealand produced milk without it. Instead our farmers produced milk using natural nitrogen fixation by clover in pastures. If we want to genuinely strive for better water quality outcomes for future generations we need to front up to the unsustainability of the current nutrient regime and seek more regenerative landuse practices which can potentially be a win-win for farmer profitability and freshwater.

The review of the Resource Management Act has identified the failures to implement and enforce protections I have highlighted here. Hopefully this review may eventually lead to change before it is too late.

The utter frustration of a couple of decades of fighting for freshwaters in New Zealand and failing even to limit declines led me to co-write an academic article titled ‘Shifting baselines and political expediency in New Zealand’s freshwater management’. A preprint is available here.

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