Putting waste into rivers is anathema to Māori thinking, explains Kumeroa Pihama, WSP's pou whanake, or technical director on Māori culture. “Māori people view water as integral to their being, flowing through them and the land like blood," he says. "It has its own life-force, or mauri, which must be respected and protected. So waste must discharge first to land, to allow the earth god Papatūānuku to cleanse it before it hits waterways.” The life-force of water at a particular circulation phase is believed to be different from any other, he adds, so respecting these transition mechanisms minimizes spiritual or physical shock to the receiving environment.
New Zealand is not about to abandon its existing sewage and waste treatment plants, but it does mean that any discharges will have to be cleaner than before. Other aspects of Te Mana o te Wai will also impact policy — in particular the Māori preference for water to run in the open on the surface, rather than underground in a pipe. It is a view Foster can relate to: “For centuries the traditional western approach has been to drain the swamp, push the river into a pipe, and build on top of it. If the value of water was considered at all, it was its ability to transport waste. The degeneration of Waihorotiu, the stream that once ran down the valley now occupied by Auckland’s Queen Street, from tidal creek to open drain, to sewer, is just one example of many lost urban waterways across the country.”
Changing this approach is not simply about being respectful to the sensitivities of Indigenous people. It is, says Foster, a practical and often better way of doing things: “For example, open water is always more flexible than a pipe, so better at coping with high flows. Making space for water enables a channel to flex its muscle when in flood. And clean, open water also provides amenity — fishing, boating, or just walking by the river with all the mental health benefits that we now know flow from contact with nature.”
Open rivers also provide vital corridors for wildlife: “In Christchurch we have plenty of parks and green places, but historic urban planning has delivered a patchwork of islands of green open space, surrounded by built-up areas. So while birds can go from one to the other, mammals cannot.”