One of the possibilities for recognizing the interdependence of humans and nature is through values and a framework of ethics. In the case of freshwater in New Zealand, various legal solutions have been proposed to settle Maori interests in water. One solution is the vesting of water as a ‘person’ in law, as in Whanganui and Te Urewera. The proposed sale of a hydroelectric company's state assets triggered a Maori claim to activate recognition of Maori interests in fresh water. The case took the argument that sales cannot proceed until Maori interests are settled. The High Court did not stop the sales from proceeding. A new approach is being sought based on a shared responsibility for the ecological integrity of water, and by working with a legal framework of trusteeship and a principle of payment for commercial use. Indigenous traditions pose obligations and responsibility as a primary ethical orientation. This approach of responsibility is being activated in ‘western’ ethics as a decision-making tool for environmental challenges.
New Zealand lowland freshwater is in a degraded state. Water management is a challenge in terms of quality and governance, and in relation to Maori interests. The regime which provides for Iwi to own river beds and the Crown to own water columns sets up a system of fragmented governance. In 2013, the Ministry for the Environment released indicator reports on river conditions and swimming quality. The reports showed that 61% of monitored waterways in New Zealand are of poor quality. More than 90% of our lowland rivers are polluted, with as many as 36,000 cases of waterborne disease reported each year. Additionally, 44% of New Zealand lakes are polluted by excessive nutrients, which cause algal growth. Finally, 68% of native freshwater fish species are threatened. Dairy farming is intensifying through the expansion of irrigation, with severe impacts on water.
National Standards are being set at secondarily, and at a lower level than many Iwi and environmental groups accept. Most Iwi Maori Management Plans identify drinking quality as the standard to achieve. With regards to the sale of state hydroelectricity assets, the Maori argued that power companies are using water at no cost. This could be an acceptable scenario if water is providing a public good. However, if these assets are to be transferred to private ownership for private commercial gain, then Maori interests should be recognized. There are a range of Maori views on interests, including the restoration of waterways to support indigenous flora and fish species, to the recognition of interests through ownership entitlements or financial compensation.
- Law of trusteeship;
- Privileging ecological integrity of water;
- Working with values to generate solutions, in this case the value of responsibility for the health of water ecosystems, rather than entitlement; and,
- Collaborative engagement of all stakeholders.
These solutions are still in process. Collaboration is seen as the means to achieve sustainability. With reports of degraded rivers and the need for effective governance and management, interests have emerged. They include giving priority to the health of the river, which the Maori, environmentalists, and recreational users expressed. Strong commercial interests come from the industry, agricultural, Maori, and hydro and geothermal and the forestry sectors. Collaborative engagement is proposed to generate consensus from all interested parties. The Land and Water Forum is seen as stellar in achieving this form of engagement.
The second stage of the Waitangi Tribunal freshwater claim is set to proceed in 2015. The Environment and Conservation Organizations - New Zealand and the Waikato University Law school is hosting a symposium to develop a proposition for the governance of water that is based on responsibility. This will involve legal development across sectors, and interdisciplinary consideration of the commercial, public good, Maori, and environmental interests in water. This will form the basis of a proposal to solve the Waitangi Tribunal Claim for Maori and wider public interests.