It has been six long, troubled years since Canterbury lost regional democracy. This year it is being allowed back in partial form by central government. We must celebrate and utilise the consultative opportunity this change of course provides. Given the mounting challenges that Canterbury faces, it is at least worth asking, can democracy provide greater solutions? The answer is undoubtedly yes.

The Waimakariri River

Ko Waimakariri te awa, Ka Pakihi Whakatekateka o Waitaha – the Waimakariri River, Canterbury

Government intervention at Environment Canterbury (ECan) in 2010 turned long-standing threat into action.

Post-Muldoon, post-SMP farming subsidy, Labour governments had forged rural recovery on an intensive dairy model, birthing export co-operative giant Fonterra as one pinnacle. Growth upon growth characterised an industry fast becoming the nation’s leader.

In Canterbury the most ‘fertile ground’ for dairy expansion was found, by tapping underground water and applying nitrogenous fertiliser to former dry-lands. But this massive growth spurt had natural limits – aquifers are finite and their increased depletion, combined with more fertiliser and waste run-off, began to degrade surface water. This the public noticed and said so loudly.

Could Labour keep Canterbury dairy growth going, against natural limits and growing public concern? ‘Yes’, said the Labour-led regional council, to Labour government pressure – with new water storage, irrigation schemes and environmental mitigations.

‘Get on with it quicker’ said an incoming National government from 2008, soon throwing the elected council out and replacing them with appointed commissioners.

Tangata whenua, the indigenous ‘people of the land’, rightly wanted more say and democracy was poorly delivering it. Appointments made with iwi / tribal corporate Ngai Tahu could start resolving this also.

The first remedy, in the return to regional democracy, will be ensuring representation belongs equally to tangata whenua. The primary challenge facing ECan, therefore, is how to structure a return to democratic representation that guarantees the appropriate kaitiaki / resource stewardship role of Ngai Tahu.

The next challenge being, is there enough water for all users wanting it? This is a matter of careful sharing, and in good governance.

The Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) was developed, and in 2009 launched, by an elected council collaborating with the region’s mayors. Commissioners have been rolling the CWMS out and founding its water Zone Implementation Committees and Plans (ZIPs). Keeping these Zone Committees viable is a function of good democracy – people need to believe and participate in ECan’s resource management plan as a whole.

It is hard to believe trouble greater than rising ‘water wars’ could displace these in Canterbury, but one did – devastating earthquakes.

Now we have seen the capacity for communities to collaborate and recover from deadly calamity, how do we optimise this capacity as a region? ECan co-ordinates local emergency responses and we need reminding and preparedness for what is forecast to come: the Alpine Fault poses a major threat every 330 years or so, the last rupture having been in 1717, around magnitude 8. Are we ready for ‘the big one’ here yet?

ECan’s technical capabilities are tested daily – a very large area to cover, containing some 70% of New Zealand’s freshwater and the nation’s second-biggest city, Otautahi Christchurch. Over half a million people live here which generates transport challenges. Without adequate staffing or accountable public representatives, resources can fall through the cracks and when they do it is scandalous: e.g. Environment Canterbury informs police, Serious Fraud Office of potential taxi fraud news today, story on RadioNZ with Checkpoint interview.

This echoes the finding Millions of litres of water illegally taken: Is ECan doing enough? in June – technically competent elected watch-dogs are needed to raise and maintain a higher level of vigilance. ‘Many eyes, shallower bugs’ is the credo of the open-source software movement and both central and local government need to learn from this international community, fast: the power of engaged communities to help solve the most ‘wicked problems’ on Earth.

For improvements to happen quicker in 2016, I have joined the local election campaign Community Voice .nz – Do join us, do speak – for a safer, more collaborative and prosperous region of Waitaha, Canterbury NZ!

Kia ora

Rik

Updates
A Hawke’s Bay water contamination crisis was erupting at the time of this post:

“Both Hawke’s Bay and Canterbury are among the driest and most drought-prone areas in New Zealand and both rely largely on aquifers for drinking water. Both have braided rivers too, although those in Hawke’s Bay are on a smaller scale than Canterbury.
A rush of irrigation over recent decades in Canterbury has led to significant environmental degradation, including serious contamination of some rural water supplies, loss of biodiversity and transformation of landscapes. Democracy has been damaged too, as development pressures led to the Government sacking the elected Environment Canterbury regional councillors and their replacement with appointed commissioners.
The commissioners promised to improve water quality. They have failed and water quality has continued to decline. Some rural water supplies, including Selwyn, Hinds and Hurunui, are contaminated with high levels of nitrogen and pathogens, leading to people becoming sick.
Canterbury now has the unenviable record of having the highest rate of campylobacter infections in the world, along with 17,000 notified cases of gastroenteritis a year and up to 34,000 cases of waterborne illness annually, according to Canterbury District Health Board figures.
Rates of animal sourced disease such as campylobacter are higher in areas of Canterbury with more intensive animal farming. A Canterbury District Health Board commissioned assessment of the proposed Central Plains Water Scheme found potential health risks to Cantabrians outweighed the probable financial benefits to a few people. Hawke’s Bay should not make the same mistakes as Canterbury. It needs development, particularly in agriculture, that is sustainable and protects water quality and the other natural treasures that contribute so much to the region’s quality of life.”
Amelia Geary: We want to be able to swim in our rivers, NZ Herald, 31 August 2016

Canterbury’s poisonous lake: still toxic, with dry summer ahead, Stuff, 2 September 2016
See Plan Change 6 (Wairewa) to the Canterbury Land and Water Regional Plan

See wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_pollution_in_New_Zealand

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