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Or now not it’s sold as ‘100% pure’. But behind Unique Zealand’s clean, green image lies a dirty truth

Or now not it’s sold as ‘100% pure’. But behind Unique Zealand’s clean, green image lies a dirty truth

Unique Zealand’s waterways are a few of the most degraded in the developed world. Will the Ardern executive clean it up or will the Maori take withhold watch over?

In Unique Zealand’s Southern Alps, braided rivers radiate turquoise from the glacial flows coming off snow-capped mountains. Breathtaking vistas appreciate these have equipped the backdrop for Hollywood epics appreciate Lord of the Rings and underpin one among the area’s most recognised tourism campaigns, “100% Pure Unique Zealand”.

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But behind Unique Zealand’s clean and green image is a dirty truth — its freshwater rivers are among the most polluted in the developed world. Last year, a executive document stumbled on nearly 60 per cent of the nation’s rivers carry air pollution above acceptable stages, with 95 to 99 per cent of rivers in pastoral, urban and non-native forested areas contaminated.

Mountains in the South Island.

Unique Zealand’s pristine and dramatic landscapes are the sets of Hollywood blockbusters and a major tourism drawcard.(

International Correspondent: Tom Bannigan ACS


Jacinda Ardern’s Labour executive has renewed its promise to clean up the waterways nevertheless is facing pushback from one among the nation’s greatest polluters — the grand dairy industry. Unique Zealand’s air pollution challenge is pitting two of the nation’s most valuable assets against each other: its global reputation as an unspoilt barren jam and its most lucrative export — dairy.

And now Ngāi Tahu, Unique Zealand’s wealthiest Maori tribe, is launching an unheard of legal case in search of “rangatiratanga”, or chieftainship, over many of the South Island’s freshwater, a transfer that may well reset who has authority over the nation’s waterways.

Glacial melts to toxic flows

The clear waters working thru the Mount Aspiring National Park in the ranges of the South Island are among the purest in the area.

Flows appreciate this race from wintry peaks down thru winding rivers to the sea, in a route of that can take as much as a hundred years.

But extra downstream, as rivers float thru farms and cities, they transform a few of the most polluted in the developed world.

In the Canterbury jam, which incorporates the city of Christchurch, some scientists blame an explosion of dairy farming and large-scale irrigation since the late 1980s for polluting many of the jam’s rivers.

From above, the Canterbury Plains is a patchwork of lush, green, grassy pastures. But it absolutely wasn’t always the case. A few decades ago the turf here was a browner hue. The plains have been predominantly sheep nation, unless irrigation schemes and intensive synthetic fertiliser exhaust enabled the principally heart-broken, stony soils to sustain dairy farming.

Unique Zealand’s irrigated land doubled in the 15 years from 2002 and now takes up half of the nation’s freshwater exhaust. Nowhere has the increase been as pronounced as in the Canterbury jam. A executive document released last year stumbled on Canterbury accounted for 64 per cent of Unique Zealand’s irrigated land in 2017.

An aerial view of a dairy farm.

Green pastures in the Canterbury Plains.

Green pastures in the Canterbury Plains.(

International Correspondent


They trace lush and green now nevertheless ahead of irrigation the Canterbury Plains have been brown. Artificial fertilisers have also helped farmers grow dairy pasture.

International Correspondent: Tom Bannigan ACS

Cattle numbers on the Canterbury Plains have extra than doubled in the past two decades. Or now not it has been described as a “white gold hasten”, as farmers converted blended sheep and cropping pastures to extra profitable dairy farms.

Dairy is now gigantic industry in Unique Zealand. Last year, as the nation closed its international borders because of the coronavirus pandemic, the $15 billion dairy industry eclipsed tourism as Unique Zealand’s most valuable export. Fonterra, the nation’s largest company, accounts for nearly a third of global dairy exports.

But some scientists have advised International Correspondent the expansion of dairy farms has created a “superb storm” for Unique Zealand’s rivers, with extra vitamins from fertiliser race-off, sediment loss, faecal effluent from cattle and decreased flows because of over-extraction by irrigators all damaging the health of freshwater methods.

‘Ground zero’

At the heart of the Canterbury Plains lies the Selwyn River, a waterway that has transform the poster baby for all that has long past rotten with Unique Zealand’s freshwater.

The Selwyn experiences regular algal blooms, one among the most visible signs of excessive vitamins, in conjunction with nitrates.

At the river mouth, the vivid green float spills into Lake Ellesmere, one among the most polluted lakes in the nation.

Extra upstream, the air pollution has created a toxic hazard hanging human health at risk.

A half-hour drive from Christchurch, Lan Pham wades into the ankle-deep float of the Selwyn, stopping a metre from the weed-choked bank. She slips on a pair of medical-grade rubber gloves.

This was once a popular swimming place of abode nevertheless is now suffering from warning signs about algal blooms and is perennially listed on “now not safe to swim” advisory web sites.

Lan Pham.

Local councillor and freshwater ecologist Lan Pham says excessive vitamins from dairy farms provide a “wonderland” for forming algal blooms in the Canterbury jam’s rivers.(

International Correspondent: Tom Bannigan ACS


Barely 20 metres from the public carpark, Ms Pham has stumbled on what she’s purchasing for — a patch of toxic cyanobacteria in the shallows of the rocky riverbed.

“It appears as these somewhat thick, velvety mats, usually both dark brown or black,” she says, reaching into the water and lifting up a portion.

“These toxic cyanobacteria, there’s been somewhat an increase in them across Unique Zealand over the last decade or so. They can be really deadly to dogs and also really harmful to humans.

“The dogs gather attracted to the old-fashioned smell and it takes only 1 teaspoon for a dog to ingest that for it to actually die.”

The risk of harm for folks that enter these waters is real. But what is also really referring to Ms Pham is that for a generation of Kiwis, a polluted river has transform the norm.

“After we’re advised that rivers are dangerous, it simply enforces that disconnection with nature and the idea that we’re one way or the other separate,” she says. “That to actually address considerations appreciate this and fight for our public resources or attempt give protection to our public resources, that that’s one way or the other unreasonable because here’s the baseline now.”

Ms Pham is clear to shift that baseline. She has spent the last 10 years working to guard freshwater life as an ecologist and, extra lately, in local politics. In 2016, the then 29-year-extinct campaigned for the Canterbury council elections on a conservation and freshwater agenda whereas engaged on the distant Raoul Island in the Kermadecs.

A screenshot from Lan Pham's 'Freshwater' video.

A screenshot from Lan Pham’s ‘Freshwater’ video.(



A still image from Lan Phan's 'Freshwater' video.

A screenshot from Lan Pham’s ‘Freshwater’ video.(



A still image from Lan Pham's 'Freshwater' video.

A screenshot from Lan Pham’s ‘Freshwater’ video.(



A still image from Lan Pham's 'Freshwater' video.

A screenshot from Lan Pham’s ‘Freshwater’ video.(



A still image from Lan Pham's 'Freshwater' video.

A screenshot from Lan Pham’s ‘Freshwater’ video.(



State to the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”, Lan Pham’s social media hit lampooned the frail National executive’s handling of Unique Zealand’s waterways.


Without a profile and no ability to physically campaign, she leveraged social media, making movies principally filmed by her husband, which she jokingly says they learned to make watching MTV music clips. One in all her movies, place to the Taylor Swift track “Bad Blood”, garnered 150,000 views in a week ahead of it had to be pulled off the fetch for copyright reasons.

Ms Pham’s message has hit a nerve — she was the absolute most realistic-voted candidate in the 2016 Canterbury regional elections and was re-elected in 2019.

“It’s miles about our adolescents and grandkids,” she says. “We know that it be simply this totally unjust situation where we’re leaving them these large astronomical considerations, now not handiest with freshwater, nevertheless climate to address. We have to resolve this now and we have to treat it really seriously.”

Trying out the waters

Becoming a member of Ms Pham at the Selwyn River, Dr Mike Pleasure swings a metal pole with a specimen jar wired to 1 pause. He lowers it into the heart of the river, scoops up some water and shortly screws the lid back onto the plastic jar.

Dr Pleasure is a outstanding freshwater ecologist and is making an attempt out the nitrate nitrogen stages in the water. Nitrates are colourless and odourless nevertheless Dr Pleasure expects the sample to substantiate their presence.

He takes the sample to a real-time nitrate attempting out unit, which he purchased with some prize cash a few years ago. It has allowed him to work with a small network of alternative scientists to examine water samples around the nation. He is aware of the nitrate level goes to be excessive nevertheless he’s aloof taken aback by the consequence — 9.66 mg/L of nitrate nitrogen.

Dr Mike Joy.

Dr Mike Pleasure was part of a personnel of unbiased scientists place up by the manager to advise on its freshwater reforms. He says the nitrate limit in rivers wants to be lower.(

International Correspondent: Tom Bannigan ACS


“Wow, that’s crazy,” he says. “The latest national coverage statement limit is 2.4 milligrams, so it be four instances that.”

Dr Pleasure attributes the excessive nitrate stages to dairy farming on the “light, stony soils” of the Canterbury Plains.

“[You’ve got] a total lot cows on it, a lot of fertiliser and palm kernel happening to feed them,” he says. “A number of urea, by urine going out and down thru these soils into the aquifers and rivers … animated out towards the coast. And you may very neatly be getting nitrate stages simply rising and rising really shortly. So great for farming nevertheless now not so great for freshwater.”

The health of Unique Zealand’s rivers was a key explain at last year’s October election. A month ahead of the poll, the Ardern executive enacted the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, announcing it may well repair the nation’s water woes within a generation.

On the campaign trail, Ardern promised “material improvements” to the health of rivers and lakes within five years and that childhood would be able to swim in the water within a lifetime. She was re-elected in a landslide — a victory many credited to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic — nevertheless her freshwater reforms have now not been somewhat so popular, drawing hearth from leading scientists and dairy farmers alike.

A river in Canterbury.

Algal blooms in a Canterbury jam river.(

International Correspondent


Ducks in a Canterbury wetland.

Ducks in a Canterbury wetland.(

International Correspondent


Ninety-five to 99 per cent of rivers in pastoral, urban and non-native forested areas are polluted above water quality guidelines.

International Correspondent: Tom Bannigan ACS

Dr Pleasure was part of the Science and Technical Advisory Community selected by the manager to accomplish unbiased scientific advice on its freshwater reforms.

One in all the important tasks for the advisory personnel was to figure out a “nitrate backside line” — the higher allowable limit for dissolved inorganic nitrate in Unique Zealand’s rivers. Dr Pleasure and others in the personnel pushed for a nitrate backside line of 1 mg/L of nitrate nitrogen, which would carry Unique Zealand per the European Union and even China. That limit is the trigger for what’s called eutrophication — uncontrolled plant and algal increase caused by extra vitamins appreciate nitrate in the water — which can cause fluctuations in oxygen stages, harming fish and other aquatic life.

“The farmers achieve nitrogen fertilizer on the paddocks to grow grass. What the nitrogen does in the river is it grows algae,” says Dr Pleasure.

“Algae photosynthesize, which means that they exhaust oxygen all thru the evening, they respire, and the oxygen stages drop correct down and virtually the entirety dies. Then all thru the afternoon it comes back up and it will get dangerously excessive. Those fluctuations are what are really harmful for the life in the river.”

Campaign signs.

Greenpeace launched a campaign all thru the Unique Zealand election last year calling on Jacinda Ardern to approach correct on her pledge to ‘clean up our rivers’.(



The Unique Zealand executive chose to place the nitrate backside line at 2.4 mg/L, claiming that limit would be non-toxic for 95 per cent of species. Dr Pleasure was livid, slamming the manager’s numbers as “fake science” and arguing that eutrophication can kick in neatly beneath that level of nitrate.

The nitrate backside line is a conundrum for the Ardern executive. So far the reforms have left no-one happy. Whereas ecologists argue the manager place the extent too excessive, farmers say it be too low. Fonterra lobbied for a larger nitrogen nitrate limit of 3.8 mg/L. Dairy farmers say unless the manager raises the nitrate backside line, they are going to be forced out of industry.

Gentle pinks are bouncing off the dew in a paddock in the heart of Canterbury where a herd of cattle is being delivered to the shed for their daily milking.

Third-generation farmer John Sunckell hurries a few of his 600-unique cows, tapping their rumps and “hup hupping” them along.

One in all the 10,000 Fonterra co-op farmers across Unique Zealand, Mr Sunckell converted his blended sheep and cropping farm to dairy in the early 1990s.

In the financial downturn of the 1980s, dairy became a lifeline for many of Unique Zealand’s farmers.

“We saw an agricultural decline correct across the area,” he says. “I didn’t trace it as a gold hasten, you simply looked at what you saw in entrance of you. Sheep costs have been no correct, wool costs have been taking place. Economically, we simply looked at dairying and it appeared to be the future.”

Mr Sunckell is also a councillor in the Canterbury jam. He’s been hearing from other dairy operators in his area about what the contemporary nitrate backside line of 2.4 mg/L will achieve to their businesses. The conversations are alarming. He and the opposite farmers have been working the numbers and say the manager’s 2.4 mg/L backside line may perhaps be the death of dairy farming as they understand it.

Foreign Correspondent New Zealand rivers, January 2021.

John Sunckell’s farm lies all thru the Selwyn-Waihora catchment. The 500-acre property was converted to dairy farming in the early ’90s.(

International Correspondent: Tom Bannigan ACS


Over the past few years, Mr Sunckell has been working hard to reduce his exhaust of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser nevertheless says this can be unattainable to meet the manager’s contemporary nitrate limit.

“There isn’t any way, there’s nothing that we are doing today or have the ability to achieve as far as management and design changes, that will allow us to achieve that final consequence.”

Mr Sunckell is fearful what that will mean for regional communities.

“We can have a dislocation of thousands upon thousands of individuals and no give a enhance to for the main streets of our small communities,” he says. “Your total fabric of our communities simply disintegrates. Or now not it’s easy.”

Below tension from all aspects, the manager has agreed to revisit its nitrate limit later this year nevertheless it absolutely’s unclear whether or now not this can meander lower or larger. International Correspondent’s requests to interview High Minister Jacinda Ardern and Atmosphere Minister David Parker have been denied.

Meanwhile, there’s another personnel entering the fight over the future of Unique Zealand’s freshwater. Ngāi Tahu, the tribal personnel whose territory takes up many of the South Island, is taking legal action against the manager for fiscal and regulatory authority over freshwater in its area.

A contemporary challenge emerges

For Ngāi Tahu, the rivers and lakes are regarded as ancestors.

Each waterway has its be pleased mauri, or life power, creating a deep connection between Maori folks and the natural atmosphere.

Generations have constructed a way of life around the waterways, boating and fishing in Unique Zealand’s pristine aquatic atmosphere.

But after decades of degradation of the South Island’s rivers, Ngāi Tahu are in search of “authority and autonomy” over waterways of their tribal area.

On Waitangi Day, Unique Zealand’s national holiday, about 500 Ngai Tahu are gathering in the small seaside city of Bluff on the southern tip of the South Island.

The marae, or community constructing, is adorned with intricate carvings of ancestors on canoes. A Pōwhiri, or opening ceremony, begins at its doorstep in speak glimpse of a row of elders, some in ceremonial costume, most in suits. The heart-broken health of Unique Zealand’s rivers is dominating the day’s discussions.

“Unique Zealand has an image of itself that is awfully good and green, nevertheless underneath the skinny facade are filthy waterways,” Gabrielle Huria, the head of the tribe’s freshwater unit, says in a panel discussion.

Also among the personnel is Dr Te Maire Tau, a historian and community leader who says that a few of the freshwater rivers and lakes of the South Island are beyond degradation — they are on the verge of extinction.

Ngai Tahu gather for Waitangi Day.

Ngai Tahu gather for Waitangi Day.

Carvings adorn the marae.

Carvings adorn the marae.

Ngai Tahu tribe gather.

Ngai Tahu say the fresh waterways are their ancestors.

A greeting on Waitangi Day.

A greeting on Waitangi Day.

A Ngai Tahu gathering on Waitangi Day was dominated by discussions on the future of Unique Zealand’s waterways.

Supplied: Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu

“Underlying all of our diversified rights is the word ‘pūtake’, which means the origin or the original provide, nevertheless it absolutely also means ancestor,” Dr Tau says.

“Within our world, the entirety reaches back to our ancestors. You may now not gather a waterway around here that we don’t claim descent from. For Maori, water is an ancestor, what are our obligations to it?”

That sense of obligation has ended in an unheard of excessive court docket challenge, of which Dr Tau is the lead claimant. Ngāi Tahu are in search of recognition of its rangatiratanga, or chieftainship, over freshwater.

Dr Tau.

Dr Te Maire Tau is leading a legal fight which may well trace Maori claims over the waterways recognised.(

International Correspondent: Tom Bannigan ACS


Dr Tau, who is neatly-versed in tribal law, says rangatiratanga is sophisticated to characterize in western phrases, nevertheless effectively means the tribe is in search of regulatory and fiscal authority over the waterways. Ngāi Tahu’s claims over the waterways shall be heard in court docket subsequent year and tribes from the North Island are taking trace too, with one already becoming a member of the legal battle.

With the manager, scientists and farmers apparently at an impasse over the management of the rivers, Dr Tau says it be time to let Maori take the lead.

“And we say we have authority — you haven’t, you have defaulted your obligations and that water falls beneath our rangatiratanga.”

For John Sunckell, the claim is referring to. He questions how this can affect dairy farms in the Canterbury jam.

“So is rangatiratanga about possession? Is it about withhold watch over? Is it about joint management and governance? The place does it ultimately sit down and where’s the pause game? So I impart I’m apprehensive in the meanwhile as to where it may well land.”

Lan Pham hopes the Ngāi Tahu claim can transfer Unique Zealand towards environmental justice for future generations.

“My hope is that we’re actually attending to the level where we trace extra lengthy-length of time … doing the entirety we can now as part of this generation to accomplish [the next generation] with the basics appreciate clean water.”

Watch International Correspondent’s ‘Worried Waters’ tonight at 8pm on ABC TV and iview, and streaming dwell to reveal the tale Facebook and YouTube.

Credit ranking

  • Reporter: Yaara Bou Melhem
  • Producer: Anne Worthington
  • Video and photography: Tom Bannigan ACS
  • Digital production: Matt Henry

Or now not it’s sold as ‘100% pure’. But behind Unique Zealand’s clean, green image lies a dirty truth