22 October 2003
Preservation of our lowland waterways is too important to be left to chance, self management, or market forces, says ALI MEMON. It is an area in need of stronger political will and firmer regulation by Central Government and local authorities.
New Zealand is endowed with land suitable for intensive dairy farming and a unique and valued system of lowland waterways. The spectre of pollution has already appeared and battle lines are being drawn between pro-farming and pro-environment groups. Those concerned about preserving the rivers and streams are looking in vain to central and local government agencies to provide protection from the pollution threat.
The heated responses from many quarters to the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord, signed in May this year by dairying megalith Fonterra and central and local government representatives, showed just how sensitive the debate has become. The Accord did not go far enough or fast enough to win the support of environmental protection groups such as Fish and Game New Zealand, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, and Outdoor Recreation New Zealand.
On the other hand, opposition parties backed Federated Farmers in decrying the Accord for expecting dairy farmers to be solely responsible for funding moves to protect waterways, and alleged a failure by those behind the document to acknowledge efforts already being made by farmers to fence off waterways and wetlands.
Hostilities broke out in the Tasman area with environmental groups who criticised the accord being labeled “radical green fishing fanatics and bird-counting, snail-watching freaks” by Tasman Mayor John Hurley. “He’s just buying a fight,” retorted Fish and Game, and Forest and Bird.
This unseemly fracas raises the question of why such a national interest issue should be left to voluntary agreements and the passions of respective lobby groups when, as a nation, New Zealand is in many respects taking international leadership in developing planning mechanisms to protect its natural resources. If we are to retain our record for water quality - third highest in the world, according to a recent United Nations report - we should look to Government to provide greater strategic direction, and expect regional councils to grasp the nettle of protecting their patches.
Contamination of waterways as a result of farming operations, categorized variously as diffuse or non-point source (NPS) pollution, needs to be addressed within the framework of integrated catchment management. The issue here is not lack of scientific knowledge and technological know how, but rather one of a lack of political will and adequate institutional arrangements to design and implement appropriate policy instruments.
The Resource Management Act (RMA), now in effect for more than 10 years, is built on a foundation of devolution of responsibility for environmental issues to regional councils. And it is this notion of devolution that seems to be getting in the way of effective measures to address farming-based pollution. The pendulum of devolution may have swung too far in this case, and it could be time for greater strategic direction from a national environmental authority.
In the case of the Fonterra initiative, the driver is a commercial one coming from offshore. Our main markets are environmentally sensitive. Fonterra’s stance, comparable to that of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, is that self-management is more effective in achieving positive environmental outcomes than reliance on a rule-based regime imposed by regulatory agencies.
However, there are good reasons to be sceptical of the Accord’s chances of success. The lack of support from farmer and environmental stakeholder groups is an inauspicious beginning. More importantly, there is a risk that the two central government ministries - Environment and Agriculture - may hold the view that the Accord is an adequate substitute for a national strategy to address pollution in the agricultural sector.
This hands-off approach puts us in an unusual situation compared to a number of developed countries, including those in the European Union, where national governments take an active role in managing the environmental effects of land-based industries.
Regional councils play a pivotal role in integrated environmental management of land, air and water resources while district councils play a major role in land use planning. But the relative effectiveness of regional councils in managing dairy-based pollution on their own steams is debatable. These councils across New Zealand should be working together to develop cross-boundary “big picture” plans for integrated management of land and water resources.
Government must make certain that the political will and adequate institutional arrangements are in place to ensure that the mandate given these local authorities is taken up. A firm regulatory approach is the best guarantee that future generations of New Zealanders and recreational tourists will be able to enjoy the picture-perfect outdoor assets for which this country is justly famous.
Ali Memon is Professor of Environmental Management and Planning at Lincoln University.