Water governance in New Zealand: A conclusion

By Waiology 08/04/2013

By Daniel Collins

WaterGovernanceWaiology2013When it comes to managing our freshwaters well, science can provide only part of the solution. It is important to appreciate how much water we have, what quality it is, and how our activities change these things – questions that only science can answer – but it is also important to appreciate what people want from their freshwater, how they value water, and how to broker agreements when people don’t exactly see eye to eye.

This is the domain of water governance. And for the past five weeks we have been examining water governance in New Zealand with particular consideration for the role of science.

We have heard from 16 different people from 14 different organisations offering a variety of perspectives of how water is, or should be, governed. And because science is an indispensable part, we have also examined how the science fits in.

Now to wrap the series up, I shall draw together some of the more salient points from the authors and provide a final list of articles.


With the scene set in the introductory post, a common theme throughout the series has been how water governance is evolving. The need to evolve comes about because of increasing social pressure and limited or degrading environmental conditions. We can see this in the genesis and development of the Resource Management Act (RMA), Water Conservation Orders (WCOs), the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS), the Land and Water Forum (LWF), and the 2011 National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPSFM); Bryan Jenkins depicted this progression well.

Nicola de Wit, Neil Deans and Steve Couper each offer important insights into the RMA. They also point out weaknesses and propose some solutions. At the same time, the Government has proposed solutions of its own, to both the RMA and freshwater policy in general. However, the threat of degraded environmental protection, particularly of WCOs, does not sit well with all NGOs.

Trying to solve some of the RMA’s limitations saw the development of the CWMS and LWF, seeking a collaborative and integrative approach to freshwater governance. A lack of national direction was also met, in part, by the NPSFM.

In terms of conservation, the Department of Conservation has responded to changing pressures with a focus on ecosystem services – leveraging ecological processes in the interests of society (e.g., using wetlands for flood control).

As we approach our socio-environmental limits, there is a greater need to manage what we have more carefully. And as these limits change – whether because of changing societal values as Andrew Fenemor wrote, or as the climate changes as I noted – so too must our methods.

But not everything has changed. Jacinta Ruru pointed out that the issue of water ownership remains unresolved.

Integrate and collaborate

In terms of principles of successful water governance, many were offered during the series, and they were not all mutually inclusive. Two that stand out are integration and collaboration.

The integration refers to treatment of catchments and communities as a whole, right down to the receiving coastal environment as Roger Bannister writes with respect to Auckland. Managing consent by consent will not be successful as environmental limits are approached and, as the saying goes, “we all live downstream”.

As for collaboration, this is where different and perhaps competing groups work together for mutual benefit – the greater good. Rosemary Miller provided a good example of this in regards to the Department of Conservation; David Eder and Ian Whitehouse described how they have made this work in northern Canterbury. The groups will seek a joint understanding of the freshwater situation and of one another’s aspirations. Respect, trust and commitment to the process are critical here, as both Hugh Canard and Chris Arbuckle emphasise. Also important is the provision of financial and logistical support to help the deliberations along and to provide necessary information.

One particularly interesting suggestion, made by Chris Arbuckle, was to use social media to provide some of this support. This is certainly appealing to those of us already active in social media, such as Waiology, though it would no doubt go beyond blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

The role of science

So how are scientists to play our part? Ned Norton and Helen Rouse made several recommendations, challenging though they may be: understand the community’s aspirations; be an effective communicator; inform policy, don’t dictate it. But there is still much scientific research to be done.

Rosemary Miller noted that knowledge to support freshwater conservation objectives is incomplete. Ian Mackenzie called for scientific input in developing Good Management Practices. And Nicola de Wit pointed out that the National Objectives Framework is in need of scientifically based environmental limits. But as Chris Arbuckle points out, we can’t wait for perfect knowledge before acting. Neither nature nor society will wait. And even translating existing science into effective policy cannot be taken for granted.

Closing remarks

And so with the water governance series at an end, I thank all of the authors for their valuable contributions, the commentors for engaging in the conversation, and everyone who dropped by and read what Waiology offered.

I also invite you to share these resources with your friends and colleagues, and to offer feedback on the series and on Waiology in general. How valuable was it to you? What would you like in the future? Your feedback would be very useful and will be used to guide Waiology’s continued services.

Lastly, here is the complete list of the series’ articles:

Dr Daniel Collins is a hydrologist and water resources scientist at NIWA.