How to have quality freshwater and plenty of it

Sep 27, 2019

Julia Talbot-Jones of Victoria University of Wellington and Freshwater Programme Lead at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research argues against piecemeal measures to improve our rivers and waterways.

Water is the primary medium through which the world will feel the effects of climate change. So, it is timely that, during this week of global climate action, the world also joined together to celebrate rivers and waterways under the auspices of World Rivers Day on Sunday.

As a result of climate change, water availability is increasingly less predictable in many places, and increased incidences of flooding are contaminating water sources and affecting water points and sanitation facilities.

In Aotearoa, the concern for our freshwater is rising. We already know that the risks of climate change are likely to exacerbate many of the issues the newly-released National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management is seeking to address.

Unfortunately, by not simultaneously addressing issues of quality and allocation, the new National Policy Statement misses the opportunity to capture the full suite of benefits that could arise from implementing an integrated water governance framework across New Zealand. It also misses the opportunity to action the frequently espoused ‘holistic’ approach to delivering desirable health and wellbeing outcomes for New Zealand’s waterways and communities.

International water governance models that take an integrated approach to quality and quantity issues consistently deliver greater net benefits to users and managers alike. Subsequently, a better approach for New Zealand would be to map a timeline for addressing allocation issues and to outline how quantity measures are expected to complement the newly proposed quality standards.

The interrelationship between scarcity and quality is vital to the health of Aotearoa’s freshwater systems. Limited water supply intensifies issues concerning water quality. For example, low water levels can lead to warmer stream temperatures. This can result in increased algal growth, and induce shifts in macroinvertebrate communities, which are a common measure of stream health. Similarly, declining water quality can incentivise users to substitute away from traditional water sources, opening up previously untapped water sources to new pressures.

Climate change is only likely to exacerbate these effects. In historically arid areas, such as the east coast of the South Island, precipitation is forecast to reduce, leading to even more challenges for water quality and allocation. In other areas, increased levels of rain and snowfall could worsen water quality as increased runoff from rural and urban areas enters waterways.

The effects on biodiversity are also expected to be notable. Taonga, such as native fish, are likely to become further range-restricted as a result of increasing temperatures. In addition, disruption of freshwater habitats and communities may cause extinctions to some of our local species and shifts in species distribution.

Safeguarding Te Mana o te Wai requires stewardship of both water quality and quantity thereby presenting an opportunity to improve outcomes for both communities and biodiversity in the face of climate change.

In contrast, taking a piecemeal approach to water quality and quantity issues risks placing regulatory emphasis on issues that may not deliver the greatest net benefits for all New Zealanders. For instance, directing resources towards cleaning up rivers and streams that are under increasing allocation pressures is only likely to achieve a second-best return for communities and biodiversity.

Although addressing scarcity will not be easy in the New Zealand context, developing a dynamic and integrated governance framework will help ensure that the benefits of transforming New Zealand’s freshwater governance framework can be felt by New Zealand communities and its biodiversity. It is only through emphasising the joint benefits of clean and abundant supply that we can hope to have reason to celebrate future World Rivers Days.