Living waters

This post was written in 2017; living in Berlin and thinking about rivers in Aotearoa. I think some of the ways of thinking about water in it have carried through into my current research.

Rivers are living systems. Endless currents of debate, diverging policies, a flood of concern about water issues, none of this matters quite so much as our cultural and narrative understanding of what a river is.


On their only overnight trip off the Endeavour, James Cook and his party made their way up the Waihou. They observed that this was ‘in every respect the properest place we have yet seen for establishing a Colony’. Banks’ journal explains

a ship as large as ours might be carried several miles up the river, where she would be moored to the trees as safe as alongside a wharf in London river, a safe and sure retreat in case of an attack from the natives…The noble timber, of which there is such an abundance, would furnish plenty of materials either for building defences, houses or Vessels. The River would furnish plenty of Fish, and the Soil make ample returns of any European Vegetables sown in it

These observations capture only the smallest fraction of an assemblage of thriving life. Groves of kahikatea prospered in the swampy soil of the floodplain. They drew carbon dioxide from the air. Water evaporating out of leaves gave the forest its feeling of welcoming cool on hot summer days. The leaf fall fed all manner of invertebrates — on land and in water. Fallen trees built up the soil. The rotting wood was a home for many more bugs. The fertility of the soil also came from times when rains saturated the headlands of the Waihou, up near Te Puna/the blue spring. Then water would run above the banks of the river, and lay down a layer of sediment over the land. This was the time that fish found submerged grasses and shrubs upon which to fix newly laid eggs. Some of these eggs would quickly become food for enterprising insects. In the water, macroinvertebrates — a rich diversity of water bugs and insect larvae — hunted each other — and fed larger fish. In deep pools and shaded patches of the river bank tuna (eels) waited. In the right season birds feasted on the fruit of the kahikatea trees. The forest would have been full of bird calls of all pitches and tones. Local Hauraki hapu also made food from the kahikatea, and fashioned spears from the wood, useful for hunting.

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Potential vegetation is the modeled ecosystem that would occur under undisturbed conditions

Uniting all of this activity are cycles of energy, of carbon, and of other nutrients, and the river flowing through, rising and falling. The river was a route for fish, waterbirds and waka. It was a home, and an environment continuously built and renewed by all inhabitants. All of these cycles and dependence — built up over many cycles around the sun — create a place which is full of life.

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The most recent update to the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management describes itself as a framework that considers and recognises Te Mana o te Wai¹ as an integral part of freshwater management.

Te Mana o te Wai is the integrated and holistic well-being of a freshwater body.

Upholding Te Mana o te Wai acknowledges and protects the mauri of the water. This requires that in using water you must also provide for Te Hauora o te Taiao (the health of the environment), Te Hauora o te Wai (the health of the waterbody) and Te Hauora o te Tangata (the health of the people).

By recognising Te Mana o te Wai as an integral part of the freshwater management framework it is intended that the health and well-being of freshwater bodies is at the forefront of all discussions and decisions about fresh water.

Here we find the incorporation of Te Mana o te Wai, the framing of health/hauora and the concept of mauri. Government policy is incorporating Māori ways of knowing and understanding (matauranga māori). Freshwater management should be open to diverse understandings of rivers, particularly māori views. But what does this look like in practice?

I would like to focus on the concept of mauri. In my understanding, mauri is part of a metaphysical framework that understands the liveliness of rivers, and indeed of all beings. Mauri is an important concept for understanding life in the Māori worldview. There are different interpretations. The online Māori dictionary² suggests the following definitions:

Life principle, life force, vital essence, special nature, a material symbol of a life principle, source of emotions — the essential quality and vitality of a being or entity. Also used for a physical object, individual, ecosystem or social group in which this essence is located.

The fact that mauri is present in both humans and other beings (objects, social groups, ecosystems) can be a challenge for translating the concept. The same approach is found in concepts such as mana and wairau. It reflects a way of looking at the world that doesn’t draw the same distinctions between human and non-human. Anthropologist and historian Manuka Henare describes:

Mauri is a concentration of life itself… its purpose is to make it ‘possible for everything to move and live in accordance with the conditions and limits of its existence.’ Everything has it’s own mauri.³

A common interpretation is the life-supporting capacity or the thing that makes something alive. Mauri can be enhanced or diminished, which influences the life that is present. For example, a fishing ground with diminished mauri will not provide many fish. Therefore, part of the stewardship of kaitiakitanga is to uphold the mauri of water bodies, fields, and forests. If mauri has diminished, this calls for action to restore mauri. This brief introduction should suffice to show the relevance of mauri for freshwater management.

Incorporating matauranga māori into policy is a necessary step in any process of decolonisation and honouring Te Tiriti. A strong influence over water policy should be part of a wider influence on political decision making. Decolonisation will not be meaningful without the ability to influence decisions over land and water. And meaningful decolonisation is the only path towards justice in Aotearoa⁴.

But what does this mean for tauiwi⁵? We should avoid lifting values out of context, or co-opting values strategically. The best way to ensure Māori values are represented is by creating and supporting structures where Māori voices hold authority. Still, there’s value in taking the time to understand these concepts more deeply. I would suggest that by learning a bit more, we can also see how to develop our own perspective⁶. One that speaks to our experiences and knowledge.

By exploring mauri as a concept that gives life to rivers, I’m not arguing that all New Zealanders must adopt a māori worldview of the environment. Instead, we might change how we look at things. Our own stories, models and frameworks could be enlivened. Seeing rivers as living ecosystems is not such a jump. But the results would be rivers that are healthier and alive (and more swimmable too).

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Turning back to the National Policy Statement:

Objective A1: To safeguard: a) the life-supporting capacity, ecosystem processes and indigenous species including their associated ecosystems, of fresh water

In the EU’s water framework directive the key objective is ‘good ecological status’. This lines up with the ‘ecosystem processes’ above. With the term ‘life-supporting capacity’, mauri is being translated into a western framework⁷. From a scientific perspective, there is nothing in the term ‘life-supporting capacity’ that is not already captured by ‘ecosystem process’. This openness to a different perspective is an opportunity.

If a freshwater ecosystem is a body made up of living things, the ecosystem itself deserves to be seen as a living body⁸. This is the position I take, and one I believe aligns well with matauranga māori. While recent legislation has given recognition of legal personhood to rivers, recognition of a living body-hood is more consistent with a māori worldview, and with other philosophies of life⁹.

The use of the word ‘safeguard’ tells a story which is far from reality. For too many of our waterways this ‘life-supporting capacity’or livelinessis already severely degraded. The mauri of the water has suffered many assaults. Revive is a much more apt term than safeguard¹⁰.

Water quality is currently the main focus of NZ freshwater policy. That’s not entirely misguided. Water pollution takes different forms. Our most serious challenge is the diffuse tide of nutrients flooding into waterways from agricultural land. The effects have been most visible in lakes. The resulting algal blooms are not only ugly, but toxic¹¹. Nitrates also percolate downwards into aquifers. Groundwater in Canterbury is unsafe to drink for pregnant women. And water seeps more slowly through the ground. In some areas a surcharge of nutrients will be a problem for decades after runoff has been reduced at ground level. The consequences of this alteration to river life? National freshwater reports emphasise that few waterways have toxic levels of nitrates; levels that make the water unlivable for sensitive freshwater creatures. However, boosted levels of nitrogen and phosphorus still allow explosions of algae and periphyton. In the still waters of lakes algal blooms quickly deplete the available oxygen — bad news for all living things that need to breathe. Depleted oxygen levels are the perfect conditions for toxic cyanobacteria. Some rivers have additional pollution from specific ‘point sources’. The Tarawera will receive tonnes of pollution from wood processing for at least another decade¹².

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algal bloom in Rotorua

But deteriorating water quality is just the latest front in a centuries long assault on living rivers. A crucial impact is the loss of connectedness. Rivers are cut into pieces, in ways that hinder the flows of water and nutrients vital for life. One aspect of this is the loss of wetlands and floodplains. These areas on the edges of rivers are a site of rich interplay between the water and the land. And yet, of the wetland area in pre-settlement Aotearoa only 3% remains. The colonial history of many small towns starts with the establishment of two institutions; the Road Board and the Drainage Board. While the first connected new farmers with the towns, the second cut down swathes of wetland forest, and dug ditches to turn wetlands — the most ecologically productive of all ecosystems — into farmland. In many cases, the kahikatea forest, like that of the Waihou, was used to produce boxes in which butter was exported¹³. This has an impact on water quality too. Wetlands and riparian zones filter water flowing through them, transforming dissolved nutrients into healthy trees and reeds rather than algal blooms. The impact on available ecological niches and opportunities is huge. Without adjacent wetlands and seasonally flooded areas much of the life of the river is no longer supported. This is starting to be more recognised. A definition of the Wanganui river used in recent legislation ‘includes all connecting wetlands’.

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The Waihou today — no wetlands or lowland forest

Connectivity up and down rivers has also been severed. Dams block the breeding and migration journeys of native fish¹⁴. Even where fish passages are provided to travel upstream around the dam, this generally doesn’t help fish who are travelling back downstream. Reservoirs also change the temperature and nutrient balance in rivers, as water sits in reservoirs, and only the deepest cooler water is released through the dam. Living downstream of a dam is very different from living downstream of rapids.

Rivers don’t only carry water. The flow of sediment — from fine mud to boulders — is equally important for the life of rivers. Over the past century and a half land use changes, principally shifts from forests to agricultural land, have released huge amounts of sediment, the current figure is a huge 192 million tonnes of sediment per year¹⁵. Many rivers are simply too muddy. This has an impact on all creatures that call rivers home. Silt covers rock on the river bed, reducing habitat for macroinvertebrates. Some of this sediment is then trapped behind dams, reducing their storage capability. But finer sediments end up in coastal areas, sediments from urban areas carry pollutants. Fine sediment covers reefs and smothers shellfish. Coastal areas are also sapped of life due to our exploitation of rivers and the land around them.

The complex networks of life in New Zealand rivers have been disrupted by introduced species. Sometimes these introductions were intentional, for instance in Rotorua:

In the early 1900s, brown trout and rainbow trout were introduced to the Te Arawa lakes and the kōaro fisheries collapsed because of heavy trout predation on kōaro. But predators rarely eliminate their prey and the kōaro stocks remained at a low level until the 1930s, when smelt were introduced as a forage fish for trout. This introduction enhanced the trout fisheries but it was the death knell for kōaro. Smelt out-competed inanga for the plankton they both eat and also preyed on kōaro larvae. Kōaro became rare or extinct in these lakes, retreating to the few inlet streams where a native bush canopy remained and where trout access was limited. That is, until the bush was cleared for pasture: then kōaro disappeared from these streams as well!¹⁶

In recent years the unintentional spread of pests like didymo, known as rock snot, has also disrupted river ecosystems. On top of this past overfishing often lead to a collapse in the number of fish, particularly for eels. And in many cases fishing of endangered species continues, such as the endangered inanga in whitebait. The overall picture is that ¾ of freshwater fish species are threatened or at risk of extinction.

On some rivers, extraction of water for irrigation reduces flows to extreme low levels over summer. The river practically stops flowing — the clearest example of a dead river, and catastrophic for fish. Artificially low flows can also leave rivers too hot for the creatures living in them. On a warming planet, with more erratic rainfall, we will need to do more to protect river flows. More active care and understanding of rivers can protect life from climate change impacts.

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Despite this picture of degradation, there is still life in rivers. A treasured personal example is spotting Whio, the friendly endangered river ducks that grace our $10 bill. They are unique in having a padded edge to their beak. I imagine it’s used to protect them from knocking it against the rocks of their whitewater habitat. As many rapids are drowned beneath reservoirs, the places they can call home vanish. But seeing one paddling past, on a stretch of river that doesn’t seem so life-friendly for novice kayakers, shows that the river is alive. Not only is the whio making a home in this wild rocky environment, but all of the little critters that it feeds on. And whio ducklings are exceedingly cute.

Recognising aliveness encourages us to ask how we can re-enliven our rivers (rather than safeguarding something like the current state). Restoring life to rivers brings many additional values: aesthetic satisfaction, swimming, mahinga kai. And the satisfaction of living in a land with living thriving rivers. Freshwater management is about the relationship between rivers and people. The most fruitful relationship will be one where we understand rivers as living ecosystems.

If we take lively rivers as a goal, how can this be measured? The government recently announced that the macroinvertebrate community index (MCI) would be used as one bottomline. This is a measure of the number and diversity of small bugs and larvae that live in the river. This isn’t a bad start, but the suggested minimum of 80 is too low. Different metrics are possible — including more families of whio — who rely on a living river for food. We could also measure the biodiversity of river corridors. And prevent species from sliding towards extinction.

To do this, the vision of living rivers needs to be more widely acknowledged. How to spread this understanding? It’s in how we talk about rivers, what we ask for from politicians. It’s a shift that we should be able to find in stories and art. A deeper understanding of our rivers is waiting beneath the surface, taking guidance from matauranga māori and ecological science. And naturally, discovering the liveliness of river comes from spending time with them.

The exact pathway to abundant life will be different for each stretch of water. More vegetation, less nutrients and sediment, more possibilities for flooding, more connections and perhaps less dams. Plans will be drafted and debated up and down the country. The first step is asking this question:

How can our living rivers thrive?

Maps produced in QGIS

[1] “The status/prestige/authority? of the water” — I can’t come up with a translation that feels right.

[2] — an excellent resource.

[3] Henare, Manuka. (2001). Tapu, Mana, Mauri, Hau, Wairua: A Maori philosophy of vitalism and cosmos. 197–221. Also quoting ‘Tikanga Whakaaro’ by Cleve Barlow

[4] The counter argument that we just need to fix the inequity, get maori to an equal economic level, plus fix the racism of nz society and this is enough, ignores the fact that this would be justice only in our eyes.

[5] The Te Reo word for non-maori peoples

[6] As an example, encountering Maori concepts of genealogy encourages some people to explore their ancestry, without tying this to notions of whakapapa.

[7] Maybe this is a bold claim — the source of the term here is almost certainly the Resource Management Act (1991). But I still think a connection can be drawn.

[8] More on the use of the terms life and bodies as I am using them —

[9] Andreas Weber writes on the concept of the Enlivenment

[10] There’s a link here to the phenomena of shifting baselines and rewilding



[13] Ngā Uruora: Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape by Geoff Park is the definitive text on this.