Nearly three quarters of the surface of our world is water. Nearly two thirds of our bodies is water. We don’t so much “use” water, as water flows in and out of us and our surroundings in continuous cycles. That is its nature, and ours.
These cycles physically connect our well-being with the rivers, the rain, mist and seas all around us. Those connections make up the blood and breath of us and our planet. The Te Reo word mauri refers to this and complex interconnection. The use of the term can help us understand this more deeply.
The truth of this is everywhere. When we pollute the water, we pollute ourselves. In recent summers around 100 of Aotearoa New Zealand's rivers, lakes and bays were too polluted to swim in safely. A lot of that was overflowing sewage systems. Life around our coasts is also suffering from being smothered in sediment. This is mostly caused when topsoil is left exposed by development or forestry. It gets washed downriver into the sea by heavy rains. It turns breeding grounds for kai moana and the abundance of the seas into sludgy wastelands.
Toxic heavy metal pollution flows along with it. Zinc wears from vehicle tyres, copper from brake pads. It goes into the storm drains to the sea. Copper is used in anti-foul paint to stop sea life growing on boat hulls. Unsurprisingly, it’s not great when the paint wears away into the water.
Plastic pollution too has hit the headlines. Plastic pollution in Aotearoa New Zealand's oceans threatens more sea-bird species than anywhere else on Earth. Two global studies have now estimated that there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.
In 2021, research by several universities found 800,000 Kiwis are exposed to water nitrate levels likely to be a health risk. This pollution has risen rapidly in recent years. The main culprit? Industrialised agriculture and dairy farming. International studies have found a possible link between nitrates in water, bowel cancer and other disease. The researchers’ estimate that could mean 100s of cases a year and about 40 deaths.
Beyond pollution, there’s also the issue of the redirection of water itself. A lot of water has been redirected to irrigate farms, and through the pipes in our homes. On average 227 litres of water a day passes through the bodies, baths, basins, showers and washing machines of every New Zealander. That’s about 20 buckets full. Those of us that rely on rainwater systems at home know how fast that can flow away.
We can see what controlling water in the way we do does to the landscapes and the water itself. We’ve blocked rivers to flood forests for reservoirs. In Aotearoa New Zealand many dams are also used for hydropower to generate electricity. This further entwines the fate of the water with our well-being and affluence.
It’s instructive to think about all that as we do things with and relate to water. It’s useful to consider what might flow off with that water when we’ve finished with it, and where it might go.
Another Te ao Māori concept helps us think about this. It's already enshrined in a lot of government policy. Te mana te wai recognises the right of the waters to exist for their own sake. For a river, lake or sea to be first and foremost a river, lake or sea, a healthy living entity following its own course. It's an obvious yet radical idea that could have nationwide if not global impact.
So what can you do to help the flow of the awa?
Reducing the water you redirect and pollute
- Take short showers, and use non-toxic toiletries
- Turn off taps when not in use
- Fully load washing appliances before use
- Choose appliances with the best water ratings
- Mulch in the garden to cut down on watering
Donate time and money to waterway restoration
Many local community groups work to restore native plants and trees to waterways. This cools the water. It helps to filter our pollutants. It restores the habitat for waterside plants and animals. Why not seek out your local group and offer a donation, or even take part?
Speaking up for the awa
Water is at the centre of many contentious political issues in Aotearoa New Zealand. Putting your voice and vote on the side of healthy water can really make a difference. Talking with family and friends about the importance and wonder of water can also do a lot of good.
Water in the workplace
Find out if your workplace is doing all it can to protect the purity of Aotearoa’s water. This might include checking for leaks and pollution the buildings. You could also consider whether your workplace has litter traps installed in storm drains. And the same approach to using water efficiency should be taken at work, just like at home.
This article first appeared in OnMAS, created in partnership with MAS.