Personifying the Whanganui River : Eco-logical Solution or Political Stratagem?


Water pollution in New Zealand is putting ecological pressure on idyllic locations much favored by tourists. The conservation of lakes and rivers has therefore become a major concern for the Māori population. This stimulating essay discusses the spiritual, ecological and political stakes of the Whanganui River case.

Aljazeera’s People and Power recently ran a two-part series on water pollution in New Zealand. Entitled Polluted Paradise, it highlighted the competing interests of two of the country’s most lucrative industries in regard to lakes and rivers.
The tourism sector promotes New Zealand as being 100% pure, a place to visit for the rare opportunity to swim, kayak and fish in crystal clear waters. Farmers want to use that water for irrigation and a boom in dairy farming has led to cows using it too, with increased levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and E. coli consequently entering waterways. Although the promoters of tourism may be loath to admit it, the idyllic locations they advertise are under real ecological pressure. Perhaps the easiest way to appreciate the gravity of the situation is to note that with 6.5 million dairy cows this small nation of 4 million produces the effluent equivalent of a population of 95 million people.
Numerous rivers and streams are unsafe for recreation or consumption. The most dramatic recent example of waterborne pollution in New Zealand happened in the eastern North Island town of Havelock North. Like many other small towns, and even parts of larger cities, Havelock North’s drinking water was taken from sources pure enough to be left untreated. However, after more than a third of the population of the town (5500 of 14,000 people) fell ill with campylobacter infections in August 2016, [1] local authorities traced the source of the outbreak to the pollution of two bores connected to the town’s water supply. “Sheep faeces were the likely source of the campylobacter.” (Department of Internal Affairs).
Towards the end of the People and Power television program the narrator suggests that a new approach to rivers, one spearheaded by Māori in Whanganui might help save a situation currently bogged down by contesting interests, a diversity of proposed solutions, and the sluggish pace of legislation. In a case heard by the Waitangi Tribunal (discussed below), the tribes there managed to get the river recognised as an ancestor with legal personhood. A local Māori leader is presented to talk “on behalf of the river, but first he must seek its permission.” The man is shown saying a brief prayer at the bank. Turning to the camera he says, “This river is me…Ko au te awa ko te awa ko au”. (I am the river, the river is me). The reporter is enthusiastic about the fact that the Whanganui River itself has the legal rights of a person. With interlocutors acting on its behalf, personhood status for the river could give the waterway a unique kind of protection. Indeed, the Waitangi Tribunal inspired Whanganui settlement mechanism might improve the vitality of not only this river but serve as a model for others throughout New Zealand and the rest of the world.

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