By Paul Reynolds
Recently the government released proposals for a national framework for setting freshwater objectives, including bottom lines for ecosystem and human health (for secondary contact). It has had an unusual reaction.
For the first time in my memory, we have had stakeholders from all quarters pretty much in strenuous non-disagreement with one another – in support of the proposal. That is not a common occurrence in the policy world. In particular, it is not common in environmental policy, where complex ‘wicked’ problems predominate and people often have trouble agreeing on the problem – let alone contributing constructively to the solution.
Developing the National Objectives Framework has been a challenge. It was first suggested by the independent group of water users who make up the Land and Water Forum. The government then took it up as a tool to support regional councils with the 2011 National Policy Statement for Freshwater management’s requirements to maintain or improve the overall water quality in their region, and safeguard freshwater’s life supporting capacity. Officials in the cross-agency Water Reform Directorate have worked with a raft of people and organisations from many differing perspectives and disciplines to come up with this first iteration.
Well over two decades ago, philosopher Jerome Ravetz suggested that policy makers should respond intelligently to the imperfections of science in forming policy decisions, but in a way that makes sensible use of the available science in the context of other information. His argument was not to delay or procrastinate on decision-making (often by calling for new or more research), but to have better policy processes with wider engagement, procedures of self-criticism, and quality control.
This is the approach we have taken with the framework. We acknowledge that we do not have perfect information. But this should not stop us from taking action. We especially recognise that policy makers alone cannot solve the challenges that we face. In this instance, the role of the science community has been pivotal.
To develop the framework from just a concept into a practical tool, the government brought together more than 60 experts from New Zealand’s freshwater science community to tell us – from a scientific viewpoint – what defines water quality in our rivers, lakes and aquifers. Estuaries, as many have noted, are not yet included. Neither, for that matter, are several attributes that we all recognise are important indicators of freshwater health, such as macroinvertebrate communities or sediment load. For those, I refer you back to Jerome Ravetz, with the commitment that should Ministers give the framework the go-ahead, work will continue on the science we need to understand further attributes for populating future versions of the framework.
We engaged scientists early in the process of developing the framework to gain consensus on the scientific evidence. The reasons for this are two-fold. The first is to give regional councils and their communities a tool that will help them have the difficult conversations around what they want for their water bodies. This is essentially a value judgement – and competing interests and values for our water is where the conflict usually lies. But good – which means achievable, affordable and lasting – decisions need to be underpinned by an understanding of both the scientific and economic implications that ultimately create the costs to communities.
Secondly, a robust national framework where the science has been settled is an attractive alternative to dragged-out case-by-case disputes in the Environment Court where the focus is the ‘accuracy’ of the science. We want to get agreed science out to our communities, so a collaborative and constructive conversation can occur about the values they hold for their water bodies.
Science of course, is not about what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – it is about the weight of evidence. What we think we know now may change as evidence improves, and as our behaviour changes or adapts. Balancing the need to get the science as settled as possible, and the need to introduce more support for councils to successfully implement the NPS-FM, we decided to take a step-by-step approach to populating the framework. That’s why this version is simply the first cab off the rank. It is the start of the journey, not the end.
Dr Paul Reynolds is the Secretary for the Environment, Ministry for the Environment.