The Ministry for the Environment’s recent freshwater report outlines the scale of the country’s pollution problem and makes many references to Māori ways of thinking, but what does it take to really understand an issue from another culture’s perspective? ask Emeritus Professor Lydia Wevers and Associate Professor Maria Bargh.

Take Lake Horowhenua, for example. One of New Zealand’s most polluted lakes, it is apparently so toxic that an unnamed scientist from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) said in 2012 a child could die if enough of its water was swallowed.

It is also a significant taonga for Muaūpoko and Ngāti Raukawa iwi, and like all lakes, wetlands and waterways of Aotearoa, it was an important food basket and a place of outstanding beauty for Māori. Early maps show the lake and the coastal system it is part of thickly inscribed with Māori names revealing centuries-old use and knowledge. And yet there is now a proposal to exempt it from the new freshwater standards because there is “no feasible fix”.

For Māori, the heavily polluted lake could be described as nearing a state of wai-kino—meaning the mauri (life force) of the water has been altered and has the potential to harm all living things. The phrases for water in te reo Māori often have a metaphysical dimension and link back to the fundamental conception of whakapapa in which everything is connected and has its own being—something now recognised in the legal personhood of Te Awa Tupua (the Whanganui River). Personal health and the health of the iwi are also linked to the health of waterways, rivers, wetlands, and lakes.

Māori names for water bodies tell you about their properties and their being. Names such as Wai-rakei (the place where the pools were used as mirrors), Wai-rarapa (the glistening waters), Wai-whetu (the star waters), and Wai-taki (the tears of Aoraki). These phrases offer a glimpse of the pre-European world, where metaphorical names tell you about places and what people did there, constituting a web of knowledge sedimented in time.

European descriptive naming practices for water, on the other hand, tend to focus on physical properties or size, such as river, stream, creek, and pond. Or the movement of water: cascade, rapids, waterfall, bog, and flood. The difference in naming approaches is highly instructive about our different forms of cultural thinking, and how our cultures respond differently to the natural world.

Much of current ecological and environmental planning, such as the recent report from the Ministry for the Environment, Our Freshwater 2020, acknowledges the stake Māori have in water and refers to their ways of thinking about it. In order to improve understanding about how perspectives on landscape are cultural, we have created a bicultural series of free massive open online courses looking at landscape as an expression of culture, with the third and final course focused on water (wai). New Zealand Landscape as Culture: Wai (Water) is a bicultural conversation based on the structure of whakapapa and teases out the ways in which our two cultures collide, ignore and talk past each other.

The Ministry for the Environment report shows, graphically and in other ways, the scale of the problem we confront to restore both the resource and the mauri of our water. Europeans tend to think of water’s first role as providing benefit to people through irrigation, power, drinking water, sewage disposal, and recreation. What can a different cultural perspective offer as we look for solutions?

In the case of water, it means thinking of water bodies as living beings with histories and individual characteristics, populated by an immense diversity of flora and fauna, interconnected with surrounding biodiversity and for which we may all have obligations as kaitiaki. When you do that you start to see a different kind of loss, and the path to a different kind of gain.

It is not good enough to say there is no ‘feasible fix’ for Lake Horowhenua. Let’s start to talk properly about what a Treaty-based process might mean for all our waterways and all our people.

Emeritus Professor Lydia Wevers is a specialist in New Zealand literature and history at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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