Down the Drain
The war on water quality in New Zealand.
By Andrew Broadley
I can feel the thumping in my head growing stronger with each bend. My small frame swings left crashing into my sister and swings right crashing into the other. I do my best to steady my vision, to focus on the translucent heatwaves that are emitting from the asphalt in front. As the car continues to move across the road beneath, the heat rippling up from it seeps through the metal belly of our station wagon and through the inner workings and cranks and shafts until it seeps through the fabric of the seat and wraps itself all around us. The windows are rolled all the way down but being crammed into the middle seat I am unable to throw my head out of it like I want to, much like a dog would. The sunroof above me remains firmly closed.
“The windows are down.”
The response my father always gave when we requested he open it. For some reason I have never learned, he always had reservations about opening the sunroof. It was as if he believed for a car to function it needed its sturdy walls and that in opening all the windows, we were pushing our luck. Creating too many holes in its structure. That if we were to open the sunroof in addition to the windows, we would be hollowing out the vehicle beyond repair. I knew it was pointless to ask again so I stayed as steady as I could and hoped for the thumping to ease. The thumping did ease eventually. When I dived into the deep cool of the watering hole that lay at the end of the series of winding, dusty roads. I ate chicken and coleslaw rolls and my brother got sunburnt and we moved around the hole with the sun’s light, avoiding the patches that grew dim with the fading afternoon.
Last Christmas, my family and I returned to that same watering hole. But when we arrived there would be no cool swim to relieve the sunburn and heat. Warning signs had been put up all around. Signs that looked similar to the ones that lined the stream near my childhood home, where I had grown up playing. I remember running along its banks with swords I had cut out of cardboard. I remember getting inner tubes and drifting down it. I remember wading through it to get to the other side to avoid the long walk to the bridge. I remember the year my mother told me I was no longer allowed to. I remember the days walking home from school where the banks full of children had been replaced by banks of workers in fluorescent orange overalls and mossy green boots,pulling trash and muck from its belly.
As of 2019, 0% of Auckland’s rivers and lakes are graded as good, and 62% overall are considered poor. The consistent degradation of our waterways has long been hidden behind an effective marketing campaign. A clean green image so prevalent, we have managed to convince ourselves it’s true. But we can’t pave over the sewage forever. Two thirds of our rivers are no longer swimmable. Half our lakes are irreversibly damaged. Three quarters of our native freshwater fish are facing extinction. In 2016, 3000 people were poisoned, and three people died in Havelock North when sheep faeces contaminated their tap water. A harsh reality to the side effects of the massive economic boom our agriculture industry has brought. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Science (NIWA) has stated that pastoral farming – which accounts for 40% of New Zealand’s land area – is undoubtedly the main source of diffuse pollution (indirect sources of water pollution). Our farming industry, in particular our dairy industry, has gone largely unchecked due to its integral role in both our economy,and identity. A country founded on farming, it has provided an avenue for economic growth (we are the largest exporters of dairy in the world) and been integral to the livelihoods of countless rough and tumble Kiwi men (and women). Questioning its practices or its role in polluting our country is deemed political suicide.
Labour’s attempts to introduce tough environmental regulations has led to protests in Jacinda’s hometown. In shifting our farming practices, we can’t simply expect our farmers to comply without huge financial assistance. If we are to keep the livelihood of both our rural workers and our land, the government is going to have to provide incentives and assistance in ensuring this shift doesn’t create an environment unprofitable to those in it. A difficult task that I am lucky enough to sit here and think about without having to have any involvement in trying to solve.
But it is one that needs to be solved. Because soon, it will be too late. The rigorous, irrigation
heavy approach our farming is currently geared towards has to end, but serious and achievable alternatives need to be there for when it does. Farming is the backbone of our country and our economy. But we can’t allow it to go unchecked. We need to be looking into viable and realistic means of shifting the industry to align more with our climate targets, because at the top of our backbone you find our tourism industry, one that has thrived on a platform of lush greenery and free flowing beauty. An industry that is on the verge of collapse post COVID-19. An industry that cannot continue if our water is toxic and our land degraded.
This past summer my friend went for her evening swim, a ritual she partakes in the months December through February, longer if the weather allows. On her way home she stopped for an ice cream, and an iced tea. She drove the coastal road back to her house, a breeze pouring through the open sunroof. When traffic allowed, she would run her fingers down the length of her hair from top to bottom, still wet. Once she arrived home, she read that her local beach was now among the most polluted.The coarseness and texture that saltwater brings to hair suddenly lost its charm. Her fingers no longer seemed to run through her hair with ease, but now they ran through mangled knots of locks. The next day she finished work and went for another evening swim. Though this time she added a new step into her routine. Googling her local beaches to find which one was cleanest.