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A herd of calves drinking from a river in Otago (Photo: Jill Ferry / Getty Images)
A herd of calves drinking from a river in Otago (Photo: Jill Ferry / Getty Images)

ScienceSeptember 30, 2019

For once, could we please just listen to the scientists?

A herd of calves drinking from a river in Otago (Photo: Jill Ferry / Getty Images)
A herd of calves drinking from a river in Otago (Photo: Jill Ferry / Getty Images)

Freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy makes a plea to politicians and the public, urging them to trust that the people who study water quality know what they’re talking about.

Imagine you had just stepped onto a plane, and the captain’s voice came over the intercom. “We’ve been held back from take-off while the engineers look over a problem with the engine. However, the minister for agriculture is on board, and he’s just informed me that he’s comfortable with an immediate departure, so off we go.” 

There is a general acceptance that aircraft, while extremely complex precision machines, are a very safe form of transport. This is because aircraft designers do not make compromises when they calculate wing loadings, airflow and everything else required to ensure the plane flies safely and efficiently. All this design knowledge goes into the rules on safe flying speeds, payloads and weight distribution, which pilots and ground staff use to safeguard the passengers and crew. If this was not universal practice in the airline industry, people would die. 

Curiously, in many other areas where human life is dependent on not compromising the complex systems that keep us safe, we do not follow the aviation model. Politicians would never dream of telling a pilot when it is or isn’t safe to take off, especially if they or their families were on the plane. But they are constantly over-ruling expert advice on freshwater management, even though they and their families are dependent on the same freshwater ecosystems as the rest of us. 

Ecology is a desperately complex science. Scientists spend years working out the safe operating limits of the many interacting physical and chemical factors controlling these systems, and by now we have a good basic knowledge of what not to do. But politicians and the people who profit from polluting will go to extraordinary lengths to compromise the safe operating limits set by freshwater ecologists. 

When Greta Thunberg spoke to the US congress on climate change, her message was clear and simple: “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists”. In relation to the changes to freshwater management currently being considered by the government, my message is the same. I tender to all the report from the 16 member independent Science Technical Advisory Group (STAG) on changes to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and ask all New Zealanders to trust the scientists. 

Dr Mike Joy (Supplied)

It is now abundantly clear that saving civilisation from the impacts of climate change and over-exploitation would have been a much easier task had scientists’ warnings been listened to many years ago. Similarly, much of the harm done to New Zealand’s freshwater has taken place long after independent freshwater scientists showed intensification of agriculture was unequivocally the biggest cause of the decline of our waterways and groundwater. 

Despite being aware of the harm and the causes, decades of ‘hands-off’ from central and local government has left us with abysmal freshwater quality in lowland New Zealand. Limits decided on by experts to protect freshwater have repeatedly been watered down to meaninglessness via consent or planning hearing processes. 

The outcome is glaringly obvious: the freshwater health status of lowland NZ today is appalling. This is a major shortcoming in our collaborative regulatory process. Put simply, users can always compromise – ecosystems cannot.

The freshwater reform package currently being presented to New Zealanders was produced by a science and technical advisory group, working alongside the Kahui Wai Māori and Freshwater Leaders groups, to reach consensus on new limits and more meaningful measures of freshwater ecosystem health. 

It should surprise no one that the package has come under attack from the vested interests who have profited for decades from the unlimited exploitation of freshwater. It has been a campaign of misinformation and fearmongering, with the agricultural industry clearly determined to preserve their right to pollute without cost. 

Unfortunately, the Ministry for the Environment has played into the hands of the vested interests by making a hash of presenting the changes at roadshows around the country. They failed by not having knowledgeable scientists to accurately and confidently represent the science. And they diluted the freshwater changes message by combining the freshwater changes, with a random vaguely related set of other proposed policy changes, including ‘harmful waste and chemicals’ and urban expansion.

My plea is that we take Greta Thunberg’s advice: listen to the scientists and make the necessary changes. However, the government is under heavy pressure to cave in to polluters or risk losing the next election to a rural revolt. 

They need to feel equal pressure from the real heartland of New Zealand: the ordinary people everywhere, both rural and urban, who want safe, clean water for their families. So my plea is this: trust your scientists in the same way you trust your aircraft engineers, and force government to protect our freshwaters and our climate.

Dr Mike Joy is a member of the Ministry for the Environment’s Science and Technical Advisory Group.

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