Artists and politicians gather to save Canterbury’s water

By Daniel Collins 14/12/2009 1


Canterbury’s water management needs a serious overhaul, according to artists and activists who gathered for an art exhibition at Christchurch’s COCA on Saturday.

The exhibition featured works by 12 artists brought together by local artists Sally Hope and Jane Zusters for the second annual Artists for Save Our Water project. The focus this year was on the Waimakariri River, and the proposed Central Plains Water scheme.

The artwork chosen as the banner of the exhibition was a work by Ramonda Te Maiharoa. Her composite image depicted a river being blocked by a line of wooden-framed glass doors. In their centre was a door handle and key-hole. The message was simple: With the right key, the CPW’s reservoir in the Waianiwaniwa Valley need not be built. And indeed, ultimately, it was not.

In attendance were advocates and politicians of a range of stripes, but all in agreement on the need to improve water management.

Murray Rodgers, Chairman of the Water Rights Trust and author of ‘Canterbury’s Wicked Water’, spoke about the need to shift water management in Canterbury to balance economic and environmental needs. He emphasised the need to think long-term, and to replace ’undisciplined growth” with ’sustainable growth“.

Rodgers was highly critical of successive governments, both Labour and National, for their bureaucratic hold-up and inaction on freshwater management, despite many good reports produced by MfE.

Rodgers further decried the degrading waterways, unfit to swim in, and lays blame on unsustainable agricultural practices:

Cows are still shitting in some Canterbury waterways. Lowland streams run dry. Behaviours that cause the on-going rise in nitrate levels in ground and surface waters are expanding, those behaviours are not contracting.

Rodgers’ leadership on water issues was subsequently praised by Dr Russel Norman, co-leader of the Green Party. Norman went on to stress that it was the NGOs and volunteers that are ultimately moving the discussion forward.

According to Norman, these events surrounding local water management and agricultural intensification are small snapshots of a bigger pictures. In the long run, he said…

It’s about what kind of relationship do we want to have to the planet, and to our own local environment, and hence it’s about what kind of people do we want to be.

Brendan Burns, MP for Christchurch Central and Labour spokesperson for water issues, acknowledged Murray Rodgers’ speech, saying that ’almost all of what he said was absolutely, bang-on correct,” and conceded Labour’s past actions have not been entirely to the benefit of sustainable water management.

Burns also called Canterbury’s track record on water management ’woeful,” and cited a recent Ecan report claiming that 1 in 5 farmers had been in serious breach of resource management consents, but he balanced this by saying that he has yet to meet any farmer who actually wants to damage the environment.

Both Brendan Burns and his National Party counterpart, Nicky Wagner, echoed Russel Norman’s sentiment that the issue of water management was about who we are. Wagner specifically recognized the work of artist Nigel Brown, and his piece ‘Water Through the Fingers’.

Changing the tone after the politicians, or at least changing the vocabulary, was artist and author of ‘The Water Thieves’, Sam Mahon. Mahon provided a geological and birds-eye view of the Canterbury Plains, woven over millennia by the braided Waimakariri River and her sisters. To Mahon, water mismanagement risks putting the ’eternal weaver” to sleep.

While much of Saturday’s event was taken up by speech, it was the artists’ visual and textural works that provided the speech’s context. After the event I had the opportunity to talk to two artists about their works, why they were attracted to the water issue, and what they sought to convey. I will share their words with you soon.


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