Freshwater management through radical collaboration

Climate action and a sustainable water future are two sides of the same coin – and local communities and indigenous peoples hold the key

Opinion: There has been quite a bit of discussion about Te Mana o Te Wai recently. 

A simple description of its role in managing freshwater is that it ensures the health and wellbeing of the water is protected and human health needs are provided for before enabling other uses of water. 

It’s vital that drinking water is drawn from freshwater or groundwater sources and that treated wastewater and stormwater are discharged into the environment, ensuring that Te Mana o Te Wai is preserved.

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The whole world is talking about these issues.

It was very much a theme of the United Nations 2023 world conference on water I attended in March. This was only the second UN world conference dedicated to water, the first one being in 1977. 

Given that all the Sustainable Development Goals are essentially dependent on the water-related goals being achieved, this has been a very long time coming. 

In that time, we have broken the water cycle, destroyed ecosystems and contaminated groundwater through over-consumption and unsustainable use. We have also seen a rise in weather-related disasters involving water. 

It is accepted wisdom that governance cannot solely mean ‘by the government’

There was a lot of discussion about the need to invest in disaster-resilient infrastructure; to introduce new ways to recycle and conserve water; to develop climate and biodiversity-smart food systems that reduce methane emissions and water use; and to invest in early warning systems against hazardous climate or weather events. 

More importantly we were reminded that climate action and a sustainable water future are two sides of the same coin. People talked about the importance of nature-based solutions that are flexible and resilient – the restoration of wetlands being a good example. We know this.

It reminded me of when, as an MP, I undertook a series of visits to the civil defence and emergency management groups around the country. In the rural districts, the civil defence teams always turned up with their land-use planners. The city groups never did. 

I have often thought about why this was the case.

It is about strengthening existing relationships and building new partnerships, even with competitors – such is the urgency in achieving the goals

Like climate action and sustainable water, land use planning and emergency preparedness are also two sides of the same coin, so why didn’t the cities think like that?

Large organisations tend to end up operating in siloes, and we can pay a steep price for ignoring these inter-dependencies. 

And this brings me back to the challenges in the North Island after the severe weather.

I used the phrase ‘radical collaboration’ in a presentation I gave in Hawkes Bay before the UN water conference. It was a phrase I had heard a geotechnical engineer use. 

The expression appealed to me because it means reaching out to anyone and everyone for support in finding solutions. It is about strengthening existing relationships and building new partnerships, even with competitors – such is the urgency in achieving the goals. It means having an open mind when it comes to diverse views and experiences.

Radical collaboration turned out to be a recurring theme at the water conference – the threats are on a global scale. 

I found a definition of radical collaboration that considers the process as the solution. It means being willing to engage in shared decision-making, which might mean sacrificing power for the benefit of the greater good.

When we think of water and what is needed to restore, regenerate and revalue the ecosystems that provide us with water, we can see that local communities and indigenous peoples hold the key to making that a reality, and that means radical collaboration. 

The point was made several times that indigenous knowledge has been left out of key conversations and that had to be addressed if we were to be joint stewards for the world we want. 

It was a strong theme within the conference, as First Nations’ peoples spoke repeatedly about their deep inter-generational connection to the water and the land. 

This reinforced for me the universal nature of the struggle that indigenous peoples are having with unsustainable land-use practices and the impact they have on water. Some have sought the intervention of the court to give legal status to their rivers to offer them protection. Our own examples in Aotearoa will I am sure be cited in support.

It is accepted wisdom that governance cannot solely mean ‘by the government’, especially in the case of indigenous and traditional peoples or local communities. 

And that brings me back to Te Mana o Te Wai. There are different words that indigenous people around the world use to describe what feels to me like a spiritual connection to the water. And it is from this place that mana whenua are able to offer us guidance as we seek to restore the lifeforce of our rivers and lakes. We should embrace this.

We need to be radical. We need to collaborate with anyone and everyone. And we need to have open minds to the wisdom that traditional and local knowledge can bring to the decision-making table.

The future of the precious resource that water is demands this of us all. 






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