At what price our clean water?
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
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.