Tag Archives: pollution dairy farming New Zealand

The Luxury of Swimmable Waters

water pollution New Zealand, image from wikpedia

Data published in 2013 suggested that it was not safe for people to submerge themselves in 60% of New Zealand’s waterways. “We used to swim in these rivers,” says Sam Mahon, the artist. “Now they’ve turned to crap… [T]he real villains behind New Zealand’s deteriorating water quality are still at large…intensive dairy farms…

The first concern is bovine urine, which is rich in nitrogen. Nitrogen can cause toxic algae to grow when it leaches into water. Nitrogen fertiliser, used to increase fodder yields so that more cows can be raised on less land, exacerbates the problem….

At many of the sites where the government tests the groundwater it contains too much nitrate to be safe to drink—a particular problem in New Zealand, since water in much of the country has long been considered clean enough that it is used as drinking water with only minimal treatment. In Canterbury, one of the most polluted areas, expectant mothers are told to test tap water to avoid “blue baby syndrome”, a potentially fatal ailment thought to be caused by nitrates. The poisonous blooms have killed dogs.

An even greater concern for human health comes from cow dung, which contains nasty bacteria such as E.coli….And then there is the damage to native flora and fauna. The algal blooms suck the oxygen from rivers. Sediment washed from farmland can also choke the life out of streams. Almost three-quarters of native species of freshwater fish are under threat.

…One recent tally suggested that just 2,000 of the thirstiest dairies suck up as much water as 60m people would—equivalent to the population of London, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro combined. …

Dairies are trying to clean up their act. Farmers have fenced off thousands of kilometres of rivers to prevent livestock from wading in. Some have planted trees along waterways to curb erosion; others remove animals from muddy fields during winter. Some parts of the country are using more sophisticated techniques: around Lake Taupo, the country’s biggest lake, farmers can buy and sell nitrogen allowances in a cap-and-trade scheme. A technique called “precision irrigation” may curb both water consumption and the leaching of nitrogen.

Earlier this year the National Party launched a plan to make 90% of rivers “swimmable” by 2040. Yet it ignored several recommendations of a forum of scientists and agrarians established to thrash out water policy….Environmentalists argue that the national dairy herd should be cut to prevent further damage…And pollutants moving through groundwater can take decades to emerge in lakes. The worst may still be to come.

Excerpts from Cows and seep: New Zealand’s Water, Economist, Nov. 18, 2017

Who Has the Right to Water?

Water Pollution in the Wairarapa, New Zealand due to dairy farming. Image from wikipedia

The Maori claim a special relationship with New Zealand’s fresh water, based on their historical use of its rivers for drinking water, spiritual beliefs, fishing and shellfish harvest, transport and trade, among other things. Their case goes back to 1840, when the British Crown and most of the Maori tribes signed the Waitangi treaty, which first formalised the colonists’ settling of the islands. Maori rights were enshrined in the treaty. An interim ruling by the Waitangi tribunal, set up in 1975 to deal with Maori grievances about land and related issues, says that the Maori have freshwater rights “for which full ownership was the closest cultural equivalent in 1840.”

Although the government has been willing to discuss water rights with some Maori groups, John Key, the prime minister, says that “full ownership” will not be ceded. In 2012 the government sought to part-privatise Mighty River Power, an electricity company with dams on the longest river, the Waikato, which has particular spiritual value for the Tainui tribe. The Maori Council, with representatives from each Maori district, tried to have the sale stopped or postponed. But in 2013 the high court ruled in the government’s favour….

One proposal is that the Maori get a specified water allocation from regional councils, just as farms do. But Federated Farmers, a lobby group, argues that all available water has already been allocated and that specifying a share for the Maori would mean others losing out. New Zealand’s farms rely heavily on water—especially in the dairy sector, which is now the country’s biggest export earner, worth $10 billion a year.

Growing Chinese demand for milk powder means farmers are increasingly switching from meat production to dairy, thereby increasing their water use. Dairy farming is also polluting freshwater supplies, as phosphates and nitrates seep into groundwater. This has become a political issue, not just for the Maori: many of the rivers and lakes loved by all Kiwis are no longer safe to swim in. The most likely outcome is a fudge that avoids saying anyone owns New Zealand’s fresh water. But the Maori may get more influence over some water, or even an allocation.

Excerpts from Maori rights in New Zealand Water, water everywhere, Economist, May 9, 2015 at 34.