In search of a rational debate about water

[This article was originally published by Ravensdown Fertiliser Co-operative in the Autumn 2018 issue of Ground Effect. ] 

In recent years, the debates about water rights and water pollution in New Zealand have become increasingly torrid. Most New Zealanders have fixed views on the topic and are confident their views are correct. Human nature then leads to so-called facts being organised to buttress those fixed views.

There is a term for this phenomenon called ‘noble cause corruption’.    The problem is that ‘we’ have the ‘noble cause’ and ‘they’ have the ‘corruption’. And so, within this framework, the water debate has been characterised by huge superficiality, rhetoric and shouting. The opportunities for shared learning and accommodation have been minimal.

How did we get to this state and is there a way forward?

Well, to a large extent the situation has crept up on us all. The nutrient responses are lagged, often by decades, and we did not see it coming until it was far too late.  By then, everyone was in their tribal corner.

In finding a way forward, there has to be recognition that science, economics, the environment, and human values are all part of the equation. Also, some solutions can be found at the local level while other elements have to be set in place from above.

A starting point that most can probably agree with is that the rivers have to be clean and clear, rather than green or brown. The societal majority is saying that the rivers have to be swimmable without fear of infection, and they must provide a habitat for a diverse set of living creatures.   However, there is further debate to be had about measures and timelines.

There is a need for science communicators who can explain the science in terms of catchment contexts and devoid of their own belief systems. This is not going to be easy. This needs to start at upper primary school, and continue through the high school system, and then into the universities at increasing levels of sophistication.  Most people learn best within a contextual framework.

In a democracy, it is not only scientists who need to understand basic science. Every voting citizen has a responsibility to understand those basic principles. And it requires systems thinking within a dynamic framework.  We have to be honest about what we know and what we don’t know.

Currently, there is great confusion between issues of water quantity and water quality.  Dirty dairying has become the catch phrase.  At a public level, distinguishing between nitrogen leaching, phosphorus runoff, bacterial loadings and sediment does not occur.  There is also very poor understanding as to the constraints to cash crop and horticulture production in the absence of irrigation.

The rural community also has to accept that change is necessary. In relation to dairying, the science is clear that most of the nitrogen leaching occurs from cow urine deposited in late autumn and winter. We will not find solutions without recognition that cows must spend the majority of winter off-paddock. They can still graze for the required hours per day, but then they have to go to an off-paddock environment.

There are dairy solutions such as in situ composting barns which can tick all the environmental, animal welfare and economic criteria. But finding the finance will be an issue.  These technologies are well established overseas, but very much in the pioneering stage in New Zealand, with just a handful of operational setups.

A lot of the problems relate to the media, which is superficial in its reporting and hard-wired to create controversy.   Perhaps we get the media that we deserve? However, for those of us trying to use the media as an informational tool, it is a huge issue.

It is remarkable how huge swathes of the big-city populations have lost sight of the dependence New Zealand has on its natural resource-based industries. They do not appreciate that destruction of agriculture is incompatible with poverty elimination.

The journey ahead in relation to water is going to be long and difficult, but education has to be the key.  It will require a lot of resilience from those who take on the educational responsibilities.




About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
This entry was posted in Dairy, Education, Science ethics and communication, Water. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to In search of a rational debate about water

  1. Trevor says:

    Composting barns… a really great idea that few folk have heard of. It would be great to see some R&D stories coming from existing barns in NZ. I’m sure the public would be interested.

  2. Pingback: Govt sowing seeds for another ag-sag? | Homepaddock

  3. Pingback: Methane narrative changes with less need for drastic reduction | Posts from Keith Woodford

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