Worth Protecting? The threat to the nation’s water is real and it demands action. What’s more, the Water Issue comes with a whole cast of ready-made villains: someone to take the blame. Farmers.
WHO CAN FORGET that magic childhood moment when you first opened your eyes underwater? I remember mine like it was yesterday. I was splashing about in the Waianakarua River in North Otago. The first thing I saw when I put my head under the water and opened my eyes was a red and green “Pure New Zealand Honey” tin. So clear was the water that I could easily make out the bees and clover-heads printed on its surface. (Quite why the tin was in the river, which was otherwise blissfully free of litter, I never discovered!)
We all have memories like this of New Zealand’s rivers and streams. Those deep, clear swimming holes that family and friends frequented during the long, hot days of summer. It may be years since we visited them, but they feature prominently in our mental and emotional landscapes. They are places of the heart.
Which is why, when we hear about the extent to which New Zealand’s rivers and streams have become unswimmable, the impact is devastating. Whatever it is that’s polluting and degrading our waterways, it is also befouling our memories.
Understandably, these sort of emotional connections are tremendously concerning to the politicians on whose watch our waterways are being polluted. Be they central, regional or local government representatives, all are acutely aware that the “Water Issue” is not only one of the big Voter Motivators of 2017, but that it has also become a symbol of New Zealand’s entire beleaguered environment.
The devastations of global warming loom ahead of humanity – and that’s the problem. As a species we are notoriously prone to ignoring all but the most immediate threats. All of the measures which New Zealand (and a great many other countries) refuse to countenance when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change would be adopted in an instant if we found ourselves at war. Indeed, “Victory Gardens”, compulsory re-cycling, and the strict rationing of fossil fuels were an accepted part of people’s everyday lives during World War II.
The threat to the nation’s water, however, is very much in the here and now. It’s real and it demands action. What’s more, the Water Issue comes with a whole cast of ready-made villains: someone to take the blame. Farmers.
And don’t they know it! The dairy industry is spending millions of dollars on public relations and advertising in an attempt to repair the damage done to the reputation of New Zealand farmers by the Green Party. The latter’s “Dirty Dairying” campaign, spearheaded by Russel Norman in the run-up to the 2014 election, turned urban New Zealanders off farmers in droves. Justified or unjustified, the connection between the vast expansion of this country’s dairy herd and the degradation of its waterways has been made. And all the beautifully shot images of salt-of-the-earth farming families walking their cows to milking in the dawn’s early light are not going to break it.
It gets worse. The National Party, which Labour’s Michael Cullen once described as “Federated Farmers at prayer”, is increasingly being identified as Dirty Dairying’s prime protectors and enablers. More and more voters are noticing that while the Department of Conservation has been wantonly downsized and cruelly starved of funding, the National-led Government has lavished hundreds-of-millions of dollars on irrigation schemes designed to further expand New Zealand’s dairy industry.
Put all of the above together with National’s refusal to enlist farmers in the war against global warming and the picture that emerges is not a pretty one. Clearly, the befouled state of our rivers and streams is merely the most visible and shocking evidence of an industry which has for decades traded environmental degradation for profit. It is just the tip of New Zealand’s rapidly melting environmental iceberg.
The real wonder of this year’s election is that the Greens have not made more of their former leader’s extraordinary political gift. It’s almost as if the party’s new co-leader, James Shaw, is frightened by the sheer intensity of public feeling against the role played by farmers in the ruin of our waterways. (Not to mention the giving away of New Zealand’s pristine springwater to foreign bottling companies!)
If future generations of young New Zealanders are to experience the joy and wonder of their wild water heritage, then today’s voters need to open their eyes.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 June. 2017.