Water is Canterbury’s most precious taonga

Friday March 20, 2015

Safe drinking water is something many of us in Canterbury take for granted. Dr Alistair Humphrey writes how this World Water Day on 22 March we need to think about how fortunate we are, and ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to keep our water safe for generations to come.

United Nations World Water Day is marked on 22 March every year. It's a day to reflect on just how much water plays a part in your life. From brushing your teeth, showering, washing, drinking, cooking, to the food and milk produced and consumed. Use this World Water Day to celebrate water.

Most importantly, it's a day to make a difference globally for people who suffer from water related issues. It's a day to consider how we can develop sustainably while maintaining and enhancing our water into the future. 

Safe drinking water, available to everyone, is a fundamental requirement for health.  In Christchurch we have been blessed with abundant, high quality, drinking water which, since it does not require treatment, saves the community a significant amount of money.

Canterbury's agricultural economic success owes a lot to easy access to water and irrigation. The movement from an agricultural economy largely dependent on sheep to the current dairy boom has seen huge increases in the quantities of water being used.  This creates opportunities as well as risks.

In 1994 Canterbury had almost 10 million sheep and just over 200,000 dairy cows. However in the last 20 years, numbers of dairy cows had increased by a million to 1.2 million, while the number of sheep had nearly halved.

The explosion of the dairy industry has had a huge impact on the amount water used on our farms. It's estimated 1084 litres of water is needed to produce two litres of milk. Not only does this water need to come from somewhere, it needs to go somewhere once the cow is finished with it.

Cows are big drinkers and their urine is full of nitrates.  It's important we continue to put in measures to mitigate the amount of nitrates going into the ground. Once nitrate contaminates groundwater it is very difficult and very expensive to remove.

Land use in Canterbury will continue to change along with the global environment and economy. Care must be taken to ensure land use decisions support economic growth, the environment and people without creating adverse health outcomes.

We all want clean, healthy rivers and lakes for us all to enjoy. It is important that fish life and native vegetation is able to thrive and we can swim without worrying about getting sick. We all have a part to play in ensuring it happens. In addition, we need to ensure we are all efficient users of water.

As a region we need to make sure we have the balance right between developing our economy and protecting and enhancing our environment. Environment Canterbury plays a key role in facilitating this conversation, particularly through the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) which aims to find the best uses of water within an environmentally sustainable framework. Many sectors are involved including Public health expertise from the Canterbury DHB.

As individuals there are easy things we all can do to look after our water:

  1. Get involved. Take an interest in your local water committees (www.cwms.org.nz), attend meetings, and make submissions. Express your opinions to committee members – they are expected to reflect community views so need to know what you think.
  2. Check out the water supply parts of your council's long term plans and make submissions if necessary.
  3. Check with your Iwi if you can be involved in projects to protect water quality and gathering of kai moana/mahinga kai
  4. Report polluted waterways to the Pollution hot line (0800 76 55 88)
  5. Support local organisations involved in water protection and enhancement
  6. If you're at school, ask your teacher if your class can explore one of the seven themes.
  7. Adopt an area of a river bank and keep it clear of rubbish.
  8. Ask your local public health unit for information on recreational and drinking water in your area.

If you do nothing else, make sure you take a minute on World Water Day to think about the water you use every day, and what your life would be like if it wasn't clean, safe and plentiful.

Page last reviewed: 20 March 2015
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