In the lowlands of the Otago Peninsula, within the hill streams that flow into the harbour, there are water wheels. They stand as monuments to what once was, to what ‘functions’ there once were within our society, and – vitally – within our water landscape.
For these water wheels now lie within dry stream-beds, redundant, and could only function now immediately following a rain when the streams flush full. As the bush was cleared, the wetlands (‘swamps’) removed, the tussock replaced with short English grasses, as soil and organic matter were lost from the land, so the ability of the land to slow and store water steadily reduced, and the streams flowed more intermittently. And now when they do flow it is with a more extreme pattern of potentially flash-flood and dry bed. The total water that exits these catchments is probably higher than it once was, but the pattern of flow reduces the resilience to floods.
In the Waitaki Valley, older men of the land recall when the streams whose source was in the upland tussock once ran year round, cool, clear, and flush with koura. As the tussock was removed the functionality of the stream reduced, whether because of the reduction in rainfall infiltration and soil water storage, or because of the loss of mist and cloud harvesting effects of tussock and other raised vegetation, as argued by Professor Sir Alan Mark, and most famously evident within the Coast Redwoods of California.
Professor Peter Holland from Otago studied the stream flow change of an area of the Canterbury Plains through three aerial photographic surveys taken during summer months from the end of World War II to the 1990s. During that period, the loss of wetlands, woody vegetation, and soil function led to a reduction in the length of permanently flowing streams, and with it, the loss of value to in-stream ecosystems, stock and community connection, as well as to the resilience of the landscape to flood and drought.
The same pattern of change in land and water function is evident throughout New Zealand, including the drier and stormier Hawke’s Bay where the effects of that loss of function are far more severe, especially for drought.
The leadership of Hawke’s Bay Regional Council is demonstrating no understanding of these complex landscape life-supporting functions – which are its core mandate to protect. Something has gone wrong. Their obvious industrial ideal sees the landscape as simple: Water falls on the hills, it is shed off the hills and collected by a dam (never mind the functions described above), for distribution to irrigators and the mainstem of the river system for the dilution of pollution. That ideal is insulting environmentally, socially, economically and professionally.
A potential landscape strategy for Hawke’s Bay should meet the environmental goals, as well as the goals of local social and long-term economic vitality that are dependent on these landscape functions. For that, the council needs to demonstrate an understanding of these functions, and that they have clear goals. They have not. Nor have they taken the next step, which is to develop a policy framework that encompasses a landscape approach to critical issues relating to water. The only goal that is apparent is that “we need the dam.” Worse, other potential means are ignored, strategy debate is shut down, and the very functions that we need for a viable future – such as a landscape that actually holds water like a sponge – are degraded in pursuit of a factory landscape.
This is not the way policy development is supposed to occur. A clear understanding of our social values, as well as the environmental, social and economic functional complexity and interrelationships is required, together with the factors that are likely to impact on our future. Following that is the development of clear goals (outcomes), a policy framework (resilience to uncertainty), then a number of nested strategies (landscape land & water, social capital, economic focus and infrastructure) that will allow us to achieve our goals within our known constraints and unknown uncertainties.
You can’t do that in one building. You certainly can’t do that within a hierarchical system where no one thinks except the top dog, whatever their motivations. You need to embrace the communities that know particular issues, and go in asking questions, not providing answers, even ‘draft’ answers. Because the answers are out there. That is the model for policy development within a democracy. The alternative quickly degrades into a form of authoritarianism.
Yet we hear from commentators that the opponents to the Ruataniwha dam provide no alternatives to the problems of drought and regional prosperity. This is untrue. The options have always been there, and they have been argued both within the Regional Council and in more public arenas. But someone is not asking, and no one is listening.
Here are some alternatives. First, rebuild our on-farm landscape water and other environmental functions (which are synergistic across land, community and economy). That involves both retention within soil, and within farm wetland and pond systems. It involves embracing systems thinking and agro-ecological ideas as argued by the UN’s Olivier de Schutter, the paradigm shift in landscape thinking.
Secondly, community-led local-scale storage systems that are not designed with a corporate seller delivering water to a corporate user without concern for the either the environment or the community. Opuha is one example of a community-led local-scale model.
And finally, if these options have been exhausted and our landscape functions and values assured, then larger-scale systems are an option, but only if they do not involve a level of commoditisation and over-capitalisation that will result in land aggregation and energy-intensification, leading to less diversity and the effective colonisation, depopulation and environmental degradation of local regions as they have done through time from Ireland to Nebraska.
An edited version of this article was published in the Hawke’s Bay Today Thursday 26th September, 2013