Water: New Zealand applies Maori philosophy to 21st-century challenges

Aotearoa New Zealand is taking a radical approach to water management — based on Māori principles that prioritize the health of water above all other needs

July 2022

Lake Hayes
Lake Hayes in Central Otago is beautiful — but occasionally suffers from poor water quality due to urban and rural runoff. Photo: Liam Foster

Words by Tony Whitehead

“For centuries the traditional western approach has been to drain the swamp, push the river into a pipe, and build on top of it. If the value of water was considered at all, it was its ability to transport waste”
Liam Foster, WSP

The Māori phrase “Te Mana o te Wai” — the status of water — may not mean much to many outside Aotearoa New Zealand, but water engineers the world over will immediately appreciate the philosophy behind it: it expresses the vital importance of water to life, and the value of keeping it clean and healthy by treating it with respect.

The concept has been an official part of New Zealand’s water policies since 2014, but more recently Te Mana o te Wai has been made absolutely central to the nation’s water strategy.

“It means that, since 2020, the health of water itself must be put first, then human needs, and then other uses such as industry last,” says Liam Foster, a technical principal in WSP’s water team in New Zealand.

He expects this new approach will result in some changes — for example, a reduction in abstraction licences to help maintain a good flow in rivers. “It will mean that all of us, and especially industry, will have to be more careful about water consumption, and utilities too will have to be more careful about what they do with waste.”

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Putting waste into rivers is anathema to Māori thinking, explains Kumeroa Pihama, WSP’s pou whanake, or technical director on Māori culture. “Māori people view water as integral to their being, flowing through them and the land like blood,” he says. “It has its own life-force, or mauri, which must be respected and protected. So waste must discharge first to land, to allow the earth god Papatūānuku to cleanse it before it hits waterways.” The life-force of water at a particular circulation phase is believed to be different from any other, he adds, so respecting these transition mechanisms minimizes spiritual or physical shock to the receiving environment.

"Maori people view water as integral to their being, flowing through them and the land like blood. It has its own life-force, or mauri, which must be respected and protected"

Kumeroa Pihama, WSP
Avon river waterfront
Terraced landscaping along the Ōtākaro-Avon river in Christchurch, New Zealand. After a devastating earthquake in 2011, a new waterfront was created as an anchor project for the city's recovery. Photo: Liam Foster
Girl playing with longfin eels
New Zealand longfin eels live in the Ōtākaro-Avon River in Christchurch. They usually hunt for food at night, but they have become accustomed to being fed by people from the Avon Terraces during the day. Photo: Liam Foster

New Zealand is not about to abandon its existing sewage and waste treatment plants, but it does mean that any discharges will have to be cleaner than before. Other aspects of Te Mana o te Wai will also impact policy — in particular the Māori preference for water to run in the open on the surface, rather than underground in a pipe. It is a view Foster can relate to: “For centuries the traditional western approach has been to drain the swamp, push the river into a pipe, and build on top of it. If the value of water was considered at all, it was its ability to transport waste. The degeneration of Waihorotiu, the stream that once ran down the valley now occupied by Auckland’s Queen Street, from tidal creek to open drain, to sewer, is just one example of many lost urban waterways across the country.”

Changing this approach is not simply about being respectful to the sensitivities of Indigenous people. It is, says Foster, a practical and often better way of doing things: “For example, open water is always more flexible than a pipe, so better at coping with high flows. Making space for water enables a channel to flex its muscle when in flood. And clean, open water also provides amenity — fishing, boating, or just walking by the river with all the mental health benefits that we now know flow from contact with nature.”

Open rivers also provide vital corridors for wildlife: “In Christchurch we have plenty of parks and green places, but historic urban planning has delivered a patchwork of islands of green open space, surrounded by built-up areas. So while birds can go from one to the other, mammals cannot.”

New Zealand’s new Te Mana o te Wai-based policy takes an intergenerational view — a necessary timescale given some of the changes involved. “Obviously we cannot easily demolish homes to expose rivers that have been put into pipes. But we can, over the coming decades, take whatever opportunities arise through redevelopment to expose buried watercourses and make them central to our built environment.”

That water should be able to “breathe” on the surface, and that people and animals should enjoy access to it, are examples of ancient Māori philosophy chiming neatly with 21st-century thinking. Even the idea of discharging waste to land is reflected in some modern sustainable urban drainage systems, or SUDS. More controversial, perhaps, is the Māori view that water should not leave its catchment area. New Zealand’s east is much drier than its west, but Foster says that as a result of Te Mana o te Wai, any plans for cross-catchment transfers will likely not see the light of day. Even this is not entirely out of keeping with modern approaches, as such transfers have the potential to upset the balance of the natural systems within catchments and regional groundwater systems.

New Zealand is not in general short of water, and could be regarded as fortunate to be able to afford the luxury of revisiting the Māori way of water management. But perhaps this misses the point. Indigenous peoples on all continents have, over millennia, learned to live with their local water geography in ways that, through industrialization, have sometimes been forgotten. “Traditional approaches have global relevance for helping us recognize the value of our natural water environments and to restore them,” says Foster. New Zealand’s experience also shows that they have more in common with the new than it might at first appear.

This article appears in The Possible issue 09, as part of a longer feature on water and climate change

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