At what price our clean wa­ter?

The Tribune (NZ) - - OPINION - MARNIE PRICKETT

We are fight­ing for clean wa­ter in New Zealand. Can you be­lieve it? It feels like a bad dream but there are too many aw­ful sta­tis­tics, too many suf­fo­cated fish, too many dogs dead from in­gest­ing toxic al­gae for it to be a dream. This is re­al­ity.

So it was stag­ger­ing to hear our Prime Min­is­ter on break­fast tele­vi­sion say­ing that our wa­ter­ways are ‘‘in good shape’’. We know what John Key says isn’t true be­cause we see our rivers and lakes ev­ery day. We watch their colour change to brown, to green, to grey. We scoop up dead wildlife from their dry beds.

This is the wa­ter we rely on. The wa­ter. Can you be­lieve we are fight­ing to keep it clean?

How does the govern­ment dis­re­gard re­search that tells us the ma­jor­ity of our rivers are un­safe to swim in? That 21 per cent of ground­wa­ter sites, where we once sourced the purest wa­ter, are now so high in pathogens that they’re not safe to drink from? And that the pro­por­tion of threat­ened na­tive fish has gone from 20 per cent to 74 per cent in just over a decade?

The young peo­ple who pre­sented a pe­ti­tion in Welling­ton ear­lier this year call­ing for the min­i­mum stan­dard for rivers and lakes to be swimmable, are ask­ing their govern­ment not only for lead­er­ship but also for care and pro­tec­tion. ‘Swimmable’ is a mea­sured stan­dard at which wa­ter is safe for peo­ple and an­i­mals.

Who can we turn to when our Min­is­ter for the En­vi­ron­ment finds it ‘‘im­prac­ti­cal’’ to es­tab­lish clean safe wa­ter as the pri­or­ity for fresh­wa­ter leg­is­la­tion?

And now we hear from Hori­zons Re­gional Coun­cil­lor Mur­ray Guy that fresh­wa­ter stan­dards that pri­ori­tise the health of peo­ple would ‘‘de­stroy the liveli­hood of this re­gion’’. If our eco­nomic model re­ally re­lies so heav­ily on pol­lu­tion go­ing into fresh­wa­ter, we must be smart, in­no­va­tive and en­cour­age change.

Com­men­ta­tors who have de­scribed the goals of this pe­ti­tion as as­pi­ra­tional have been at best well-mean­ing but at worst ac­tively be­lit­tling. Ei­ther way they fail to grasp the weight of this for the next gen­er­a­tion. We need those in power to make de­ci­sions that recog­nise that fresh­wa­ter is es­sen­tial and pol­luted wa­ter is dan­ger­ous.

It is that sim­ple, and yet when we ask why we can’t have leg­is­la­tion that pri­ori­tises wa­ter safe enough for both hu­mans and an­i­mals to swim in, a tale is spun about the im­pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing 100 per cent of our 425,000km of wa­ter­ways swimmable 100 per cent of the time, 365 days of the year.

Th­ese num­bers are re­peated ad nau­seam at any men­tion of swimmable rivers and yet they mean so lit­tle. Yes, we have kilo­me­tres of wa­ter­ways. Yes, there are 365 days in a year. Main­tain­ing 100 per cent of any­thing is in­deed chal­leng­ing but this is not what leg­is­la­tion is about.

Leg­is­la­tion is an ex­pres­sion of a na­tion’s pri­or­i­ties. We don’t want peo­ple to suf­fer so we cre­ate laws that make it il­le­gal to mis­treat or abuse them.

In the same way, we leg­is­late so that the en­vi­ron­ment we share is not mis­treated or abused be­cause when it is it causes the suf­fer­ing of peo­ple and an­i­mals. Leg­is­la­tion does not guar­an­tee bad things won’t hap­pen. In­stead it makes clear our ex­pec­ta­tions and agree­ment that we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to oth­ers.

This is what we have the op­por­tu­nity to do now while the pro­posed fresh­wa­ter leg­is­la­tion is un­der re­view; to be clear about what our pri­or­i­ties are and to write them into law. Our chil­dren do not ‘as­pire’ to clean wa­ter. They need it to live. Can we look at our chil­dren and tell them they are not worth the in­vest­ment in safe wa­ter?

How will we ex­plain that we are will­ing to put them in dan­ger for the sake of … for the sake of what, ex­actly?

– Marnie Prickett is Choose CleanWater NZ spokesper­son and an Agri­cul­tural Sci­ence stu­dent at Massey Uni­ver­sity

PHOTO WAR­WICK SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

Kyle­sha Foote and Marnie Pricket of Choose Clean Wa­ter em­barked on a month long fact-find­ing tour of the coun­try in Fe­bru­ary to find out first hand about the degra­da­tion of New Zealand’s wa­ter­ways.

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