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None of this is remotely sustainable

Written By: - Date published: 12:31 pm, November 3rd, 2021 - 43 comments
Categories: disaster, Environment, sustainability, water - Tags: , , , ,

I’m one of the fortunate people to have had a 70s childhood swimming in our local rivers. We freely drank out of the same rivers, didn’t think twice about that. We just took all that for granted, and rightly so. It should be the birthright of us all. This is how nature is supposed to be.

As a teen I remember reading about European rivers being so polluted people couldn’t swim in them, let alone drink from them, and thinking how could they be so stupid as to allow that to happen?

This week Stuff published a piece about Lake Waikare, aka Lake Fanta, This Is How It Ends: How producing milk turned a lake bright orange

Photo: Iain McGregor/Stuff

From Stuff in July,

Water in Waikato’s Lake Waikare is still dangerous to swallow or touch.

A public health warning about high cyanobacteria levels continues, and Waikato DHB medical officer of health Dr Richard Wall said people should avoid skin contact with the water.

Symptoms of contact with or swallowing the water include rash, skin and eye irritation; allergy symptoms such as hayfever and asthma; and possible stomach upsets including diarrhoea and vomiting.

I was duly horrified, in a ‘wtaf New Zealand?’ kind of way, but then I discovered that this isn’t new. As far back as 2013, there are reports of algae overgrowth in Lake Waikare.

Newshub November 2013: Lake Waikare is the country’s dirtiest lake

It’s so dirty, in fact, that the regional council says it is unlikely to ever be restored.

“I think it’s fair to say that part of the problem has crept up on us without us knowing – the problem is a blue green algae, which could put animals and humans at risk,” says Bill Vant of the Waikato Regional Council.

Seven months later, a report from Newshub on why the lake was turning orange (algae), and,

Mr Vant says a recent NIWA report on the Waikato River catchment for the Ministry for the Environment highlighted how there was no quick fix to these challenges.

Stuff, October 2020, reports on The Last Lake. Waikato lakes are some of the most polluted in the world, Lake Puketirini is the last lake in the Waikato area that isn’t polluted. A trucking company wants to dump millions of tonnes of industrial waste beside a stream that feeds Lake Puketirini.

If that isn’t the central, enduring story of Clean Green New Zealand, I don’t know what is.

But there’s more. Waikato Regional Council’s website has a partial list of causes:

  • by 1940 the lake was turbid, probably from adjacent land clearing.
  • In 1965 the naturally shallow lake was lowered by 1m as part of flood control.
  • Since the early 60s wetlands around the lake have been reduced by 67%.
  • Submerged aquatic plants collapses in the late 70s.
  • The council monitored the lake closely between 1994 and 2004, and found
    • significant increases in nitrogen and phosphorus (don’t mention the cow!)
    • Sediment disruption from wave action (no cause given)
    • Erosion in the lake’s catchment

Meanwhile, the Waikato District Council has been discharging sewerage into the lake for the past thirty years years, and the last three have been ‘non-compliant’ and despite being told by the Regional Council to stop. The sewerage treatment plant can’t cope with the town’s output due to rapid development. Who gave consent for the development I wonder.

Yeah, I can totally see how this crept up on them without them knowing.

Of all those things the only issue that isn’t on humans is the original shallow nature of the lake, and probably the wave action. The rest is the predictable outcome of human activity that is divorced from nature.

I cannot stress this enough: when we perceive ourselves as separate from nature, that nature is something over there that we should take care of (or not), this kind of damage is inevitable. Humans just don’t have the capacity to not do this, unless we place the environment at the centre of what we do and design everything else around that.

If river and lake quality was the baseline, and by quality I mean not just drinkable but healthy for all the life in and around the waterways, then all the things that we feed into that lake or river would have to be done sustainably.

Population would be controlled, new development would be paced according to the needs of the ecologies of the area, farming would be regenerative i.e. it would only be of the kind that restored the damage being done and enabled a system that maintained health in perpetuity. The lake edge ecologies would be largely restored to native, as would the river and stream catchments. Reforestation would be a high priority. The human waste systems wouldn’t be discharged into any water anywhere, but we would instead design systems that processed faces and urine into a usable resource. Industrial chemicals would be used far less, and usage would likewise be determined by where those chemical end up.

And all of that would be done in the context of the climate and ecology crisis solutions.

It’s no coincidence that Te Pāti Māori have the most progressive water policy of any party in parliament and that it is holistic and based in systems (the relationship between things),

Water – Te Mana o Te Wai

The Māori Party established Te Mana o Te Wai – the health and well-being of our water – as a driving policy for freshwater management. The three elements of Te Mana o Te Wai are:

te hauora o te wai – the health and mauri (quality and vitality) of water

te hauora o taiao – the health and mauri of the environment and

te hauora o te tangata – the health and mauri of the people.

We also need to be mindful that the drinkable, swimmable, wadeable standard promoted by the mainstream political parties is not a high enough standard for most fresh water life. Seeing the connections yet?

What we do instead, is we push the limits as far as we can, to see what we can get away with, and we use retroactive policy making to try and limit the damage. We are failing miserably. The gains we make are neoliberal lilos, keeping us just afloat while species go extinct and dairying and development increases. We might be able to excuse people in the first half of the 20th centurty for their ignorance, but there is no excuse now. None. This is willful ignorance at best, and an utter failure in basic duty of care.

This story is the main narrative running through New Zealand society. None of what we do is even remotely sustainable. Sustainable in real terms means that ecological systems, be they native landscapes, or parks, farms, roadsides, lakes, rivers, or our own backyards, are able to be healthy and maintain themselves in that state in perpetuity. We can greenwash what we are doing, but we can’t pretend that we are getting this right. Sustainability only happens if we have healthy beginnings.


That’s New Zealand’s central, enduring story. We want to think we care, but we don’t. We vote in people that prioritise development over nature, and then we get angry at the farmers or the geese or anyone but ourselves at the mess that ensues.

But what if we told a different story? What would that story look like?

43 comments on “None of this is remotely sustainable ”

  1. UncookedSelachimorpha 1

    Thanks Weka, our abuse of freshwater in New Zealand is criminal. I also grew up in the 1970s and many of the places I swum as a kid are dried up or ruined today.

    Meanwhile, Fonterra is going full tobacco-industry, trying to taint and deny the research on the role of farming. They funded a "study" (no actual research done, just some optimistic 'reckons' about existing work dressed up as a paper) that speculates that nitrates in water ain't so bad. In the actual report they make no mention at all of the study funding source (60% fonterra) or conflicts of interest, and they accompanied the report with a propaganda press release. The report doesn't mention the world 'dairy' or 'cattle' once, while supposedly summarising the state of nitrates in NZ waterways.

    Follow the money, I suppose.




    Mike Joy's comment:

    Ecologist Dr Mike Joy said the study represented the same strategy employed by tobacco companies where alternative research was put forward to deflect attention away from the harmful effects of smoking.

    "The international cancer organisation has said that nitrate in drinking water is associated with colorectal cancer. There's a bunch of papers confirming that. And then you get this sort of odd, I won't call it research because it's not, it's not been peer-reviewed. It's been reviewed by the funder. And that's all."

  2. left_forward 2

    Thanks Weka… thoughtful article.

    I agree that a Maori kaitiaktanga perspective is progressive and that it would be good for Aotearoa to unreservedly adopt it. In fact, we ought to embrace this within the more universal permaculture philosophy to land use, in order to tackle the source of the water pollution across all of our productive industries. When we do, in true permaculture style, we will enhance new commercial opportunities as well as sequester carbon.

    This environmental crisis is connected to our arrogant and proprietorial attitude to exploiting, rather than working with nature – if we are to survive as a species, it must change, and rapdily so.

    • garibaldi 2.1

      Lake Waikare has been polluted since long before 2013. I used to be in the area in the nineties and it was in trouble then. It is a large, shallow peatlands lake, or should I say it was.

    • weka 2.2

      tricky bit is how to change, and rapidly. And how to convince people of the necessity of nature, and whole system design.

  3. tc 3

    Waikato district council are an excellent example of why reform is overdue.

    They can now focus on not delivering further in other areas like roads or have another go at removing library services etc.

    • weka 3.1

      Lol, maybe we need a Regional Council Awards.

      Labour don't know how to solve the issues I raise, because they won't use nature as a starting point and they won't use whole systems thinking. They're the ones killing us more slowly. It's good they're slowing down the death, but it's not the same as regenerative approaches.

      • tc 3.1.1

        Totally weka. That and the centrist approach which got us here in the first place with underinvestment across NZ infrastructure.

  4. Foreign Waka 4

    Very good article.
    Besides changing behavior dramatically, the population control needs to be brought into the equation, but no one wants to talk about that. We need to remember that the population has almost doubled in NZ between 1940 and today.

    The world population has grown 3 fold and this has to have an impact. The fight for resources is well under way.

    It is also well known that the higher the living standard the lower the birth rate. That stands to reason as kids are contributing to household income in poorer nations (work instead of school). I don't want to go into socio structures here but it also plays a role. The question is now, are we as a species able to control the issue of being worse than termites or are we able to survive our own stupidity.

    Population 1939: 2,584,034,261 to 2020: 7,794,798,739


    • RedLogix 4.1

      It is true that in the past two centuries human population had increased almost ten-fold, from around 800m to almost 8b. But that's a linear, unidimensional view of the data. At the same time we've transitioned from a short lived, large family species to longer lived, smaller families. And while this transition has seen a huge pulse in population, this too was a transitional phase.

      Look again at that table you link to. There is an important piece of information that's easy to miss in the third column – the annual rate of increase. It's way back in 1968 that this number reached a peak of 2.09% and it's been slowly declining ever since to under half that rate by 2020.

      Another view of this information is here – but this time with a projection into the future.

      And in the already developed world – say Europe we get an even more stark picture.

      Population is not the problem. Wealth is not the problem, because poverty and large families is even worse for the environment, and even efficiency isn't the problem because there is a limit to this we cannot go below.

      As with COVID I'd argue that we have many possible tools we can use to meet the challenge. And in spirit I'm completely supportive of the motives the leader OP speaks to – we must and can do better.

      But if there is one thing modernity has delivered it is the incredible expansion of knowledge and insight into how the natural world works, it's intricate cycles and dependencies and how as a species we can and must exert a far more responsible stewardship in our relationship to it.

      Just as the mass pulse of human population growth has unquestionably increased our impact on the natural world, so too has our capacity to manage this more effectively. In this I take a lot of hope.

      • weka 4.1.1

        I literally just wrote a post about one of the worst polluted lakes in the world and a major contributing factor to that is the rapid increase in population beside the lake. There is no doubt that if the WRC had included population in the context of whole systems thinking, this wouldn't have happened. And this isn't an isolated incident, it's happening in many places.

        We live in a finite world and it's the worldview of humans as existing outside of nature that leads to fanta lakes and philosophies that say oh human populations don't have a negative impact and we're not growing as fast as we were so we're ok. We're about to collapse the biosphere and the number of humans is absolutely part of that. We can't stewardship our way out of more people than a landbase can support other than by reducing population over time.

        • RedLogix

          We're about to collapse the biosphere and the number of humans is absolutely part of that.

          The data shows the rate of increase is already slowing and will go negative in this century. It already has in much of the developed world. So in that respect you are getting what you are asking for.

          But if your plan depends on eliminating people to succeed then please don't ask me to sign up to it.

          • weka

            strawman, no-one has talked about eliminating people.

            The data shows the rate of increase is already slowing and will go negative in this century. It already has in much of the developed world. So in that respect you are getting what you are asking for.

            Unlikely, in part because of the timeframes, and in part because of the push to raise the standard of living for everyone to that of industrialised nations.

            The slowly dropping increase rate that will at some point go negative, is the linear reductionist view. The whole systems view sees many things interrelating.

            For a country like NZ it's about starting with the land and sea bases and seeing how many people they can support when managed regeneratively. Afaik no-one is doing this work. People like Robert Guyton, who have a lot of regenerative systems experience, believe that there is plenty of land in NZ for our current population. I remain less convinced, because we need to feed ourselves, feed some other parts of the world (especially aid), provide a lot more of our own products locally, convert pasture and cropping to regenag, reforest for ecological stability, massive native restoration, reforest for carbon draw down, and reduce GHGs. That's a lot to expect.

            On top of that, it's likely that for the poorest in NZ to be raised out of poverty, we will need to lower our standard of living across the board. As many have pointed out, it's rich people's decisions and consumption driving climate change, but for some unknown reason the next step doesn't get mentioned: that if everyone in NZ had the standard of living of the upper middle classes our GHGs would increase and our ecologies would continue to degrade.

            This is why the left wing idea that population can't be discusses because its racist and targets third world poor countries is a nonsense. From a deep green pov, we can just start with the shit we have some control over and responsibility for: where we live.

            • RedLogix

              As many have pointed out, it's rich people's decisions and consumption driving climate change, but for some unknown reason the next step doesn't get mentioned: that if everyone in NZ had the standard of living of the upper middle classes our GHGs would increase and our ecologies would continue to degrade.

              Here's the thing – and I've probably spoken to that exact point from a global perspective more than anyone else here at TS. I've made it clear over and again that I do not believe we have the right to demand the poor should remain poor.

              What's more poor nations do not really have the capacity to look after the planet. They're at full stretch just keeping their people alive – there is little left over for wilderness, wildlife and regeneration. They do of course retain a reservoir of indigenous insight and observational knowledge that can and should be woven into what we're talking about here – in no sense do I want to discount this, but for the most part underdevelopment is no virtue when it comes to the environment.

              I realise you think I'm arguing for BAU – and in some ways yes. I'm backing modernity and all the benefits it has bought us. My vision is for those benefits to be made equally available to all 9b of us; the whole of humanity as 'upper middle class'. That so few people are willing to say that out loud is a peculiar thing really.

              • Drowsy M. Kram

                Here's the thing – and I've probably spoken to that exact point from a global perspective more than anyone else here at TS. I've made it clear over and again that I do not believe we have the right to demand the poor should remain poor.

                Sharing personal wealth would seem to be an easy way to lift people out of poverty – sharing will be anathema to some, but there's a will, there's a way.

                1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Towards A Fair Consumption Space for All
                [PDF; 2021]
                The curve of material consumption corresponds well to the data we have over greenhouse gas emissions per capita. The richest 10% of the world population were responsible for 50% of the GHG pollution added to the atmosphere between 1990 and 2015. The richest one percent accounted for 15 percent of emissions during the same period.

                The only transition, moving forward, is three-fold: first, a redistribution of material resources between rich and poor countries and between rich and poor people in all countries including clear restrictions on the material consumption of the rich part of the world’s population. Second, a transition to a far more resource-efficient economy—from linear to circular and regenerative material flows—coupled with measures to deal with rebound effects. Finally, shifts in purchasing power towards a shared services-driven economy fostering collective well-being rather than continued individual material consumption.

                • RedLogix

                  A lot more 'wealth sharing' goes on at a personal level than you imagine – within extended families.

                  Which is I'd suggest the proper domain for personal action.

                  • Drowsy M. Kram

                    A lot more 'wealth sharing' goes on at a personal level than you imagine – within extended families.

                    Than I imagine – really? Inside my head again? Imho sharing’s the best.

                    Maybe ramp up child sponsorship programmes roughly 100-fold; some could afford it quite easily. We all want an end to poverty, right?

                    1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Towards A Fair Consumption Space for All
                    [PDF; 2021]
                    What will be needed urgently is a value shift—replacing, or at least complementing, material consumption as the main objective in life. Instead, what’s needed is a wellbeing economy that fosters true quality of life factors such as a purposeful life, health care, healthy ecosystems and a stable climate, safe conditions in the workplace, education, and access to and participation in cultural activities and family life. The pandemic has shown us how important the above true quality of life factors are, no matter where we live. Countless research has shown that the priority given in contemporary society to growth at all cost, to profitability, and material consumption has not materialized in greater collective well-being or individual happiness for most.

            • miravox

              On top of that, it's likely that for the poorest in NZ to be raised out of poverty, we will need to lower our standard of living across the board

              I get what you're saying here, but there is another way of looking at it. We don't need to lower our standard of living, we need to rethink what a high standard of living is. We can live good, high quality, healthy lives without wanting everything so….. large. And without wanting so much stuff.

              A high standard of living (and a lower population growth rate for that matter) is good health, education – especially for women and girls – along with reducing cultural and religious sex stereotyping – a place to be, a place to move, good adult jobs with good pay, having your babies live past their 5th birthday. enough nutritious food. I've probably missed some stuff, but that's a high standard of living. This is complementary to environmental systems thinking, I think?

              Alongside all this, and with an engaged population we can ensure environmental integrity in our actions and repair what this consumer-focus (rather than citizen-based) era has done. The European rivers that were so appalling in the 70s have improved immensely on the back of collective action and this kind high standard of living society.

          • Robert Guyton

            Well, again, I think along the same lines as RedLogix on this matter. There should be no talk of "eliminating people" (not that you did say this, weka 🙂 and I too accept that "our" numbers are falling, naturally. I do hold though, to the idea that there is space-aplenty for us all; "space" that is presently being mis-used (with good intent, perhaps 🙂 that could be "more appropriately used" in the manner that I've been hinting at. I believe that infusing the "not-city" space with people: whanau, families, tribes, groups, communities, associations, will solve the seemingly unsolvable problem. I think it's a matter of scale: when we measure or actions with our bodies (that means goodbye to mega-diggers!) we will be heading down the path to success 🙂

            • weka

              I live in the country and don't want it filled up with people. I can make compelling human and more than human reasons for that. I'm not the only person that feels like this. So there's an immediate political problem to your proposition.

              "I do hold though, to the idea that there is space-aplenty for us all"

              Until someone does the mahi on regenerative landbase capacity, no-one can actually know how many people can live here at what standard of lving.

              • RedLogix

                I live in the country and don't want it filled up with people.

                We're not very far apart in this at all. In decades past I got to tramp and climb in some of the most remote places of Aoteoroa and those memories are still very central to who I am.

                There were times when we had not only whole valleys, but probably entire mountain ranges to ourselves.

                It occurred to me many times that one of the central paradoxes of human existence is that often our mere presence devalues that which we value most – that ineffable sense of awe in the midst of wilderness.

            • weka

              I think it's a matter of scale: when we measure or actions with our bodies (that means goodbye to mega-diggers!) we will be heading down the path to success

              this makes more sense to me 💚 and is a good fit for the idea of how do we fit into the rohe. That's a matter of numbers but not in the way the linear thinkers think of it. It's all about the relationships with all the things.

              • weka

                here's what I mean by numbers. If in my area we want to plant a lot of native and mixed forests, and we decided as a community to do this, we would have to give some things up. We can’t grow a lot of forests *and have a lot of industrial dairy. Giving things up is not something that the left or liberals like to talk about, because it sounds like depriving people, how terrible. But giving things up so we can have something better, or sometimes just because it's ethical, brings a lot of benefits. It's the mindset that's the problem here.

              • Foreign waka

                Thank you RL and weka, what interesting comments. I read through it and feel like oh yes, yes that's what I think but hold on no, no that cant be…….

                The issue is certainly not clear cut but it is certain that humanity needs a boost of brain power if we are to survive the calamity that unfolds before us. We are not able to undo the past but we can learn from it. The art as I might call it, is not to just survive but survive without regrets. With that I mean to master this underlying aggression our species has. We certainly have to let go of that, it drives this ever increasing need for more, higher, better than anybody else and on that way trample everything in our path. Not sure whether people are ready.

          • Tabletennis

            You can reduce the population without coercion: e.g. Empower women, Provide good education for all, Remove barriers to high quality, modern family planning and
            Challenge harmful beliefs that oppress women and lead to large families, and encourage smaller families.

            the world currently adds 80 million people/year that's the size of Germany.
            The natural world is already dying slowly with almost 8 billion of us.

            The world odometer predicts a negative population growth rate just after 2100 (https://population.un.org/wpp/Graphs/900) and the world population will stand at just below 11 billion.

            I suspect that is not taking into account such things like over-fishing and the IPCC predictions (which are on the conservative side).
            In other words its really academical, the domino effect of a runaway ecological collapse will have happened before that.

            -At the most basic level, everyone needs food and water. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates we will need 70% more food by 2050 but climate change is making agricultural land unproductive. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has calculated that by 2050, 5 billion people will live in "water-stressed" regions – meaning that they cannot rely on their water supplies to meet their needs – (https://populationmatters.org/mythbusting)

            • pat

              The 'environment' will address the population issue…indeed it has likely begun its work already

            • RedLogix

              Challenge harmful beliefs that oppress women and lead to large families, and encourage smaller families.



              That's your demographic inversion for you. Right there. And most of the world's remaining population of people still in absolute poverty live in just two countries – India and Nigeria.

              Otherwise yes there are real concerns – probably in painting the optimistic picture I'm omitting for reasons of clarity many of the challenges we face. You are right to bring them to the conversation.

              I''m not pretending any of this is easy or even likely. Mine is a kind of reckless optimism in the face of probable doom if you like devil

  5. Ed 5

    Thank you for this Weka. Such an important issue.

    Stuff are running an excellent series at the moment entitled 'This Is How It Ends'

    There are 7 episodes out now. Episode 5 is about fresh water including Lake Waikare. I have added the link for Episode 5.

    1. Seabirds
    2. Native Birds
    3. Oceans
    4. All creatures great and small
    5. Fresh water https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auc5r_BL2yg
    6. The endangered forest
    7. The islands.

    As the title of the post states, 'None of this is remotely sustainable.'


    • Hunter Thompson II 5.1

      Add to the list the doco "Milk and Money" which screened recently. It objectively tells the real story – the one DairyNZ doesn't want Kiwis to hear about.

      Made with your money, it is available on TVNZ on demand.

  6. "The story of New Zealand’s most polluted lake is the same story running through all of New Zealand society."

    Tautoko. Same with the way we fart out tons of carbon. Same with the way we pillage the ocean. Same with the way we treat livestock. Same with the way we exploit each other. Same with the way that 60% of housing in this country is owned by "investors" not owner-occupiers.


  7. Thanks weka. An important post which deserves wide coverage.

    I used to think Lake Forsythe, on the way to Akaroa, was the most polluted lake in the country, but, my God, it hasn't turned orange yet!

    • weka 7.1

      Cheers Tony.

    • UncookedSelachimorpha 7.2

      Only 40 short years ago I used to fish around Lake Forsythe as a youngster. Wouldn't dream of it now.

    • Hunter Thompson II 7.3

      If I remember media reports correctly, Lake Forsyth had dead sheep in it – but it wasn't orange, just green (and toxic).

      Key Question: what sort of environment will we hand on to our grandchildren? We have only borrowed it, after all.

  8. Jc 8

    In the ealy fifties the local Tehoe primary school used the lake for swimming sports

  9. Stuart Munro 9

    The highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences. ~ Pardot Kynes

    There are a number of primary industries in NZ for which this simple necessity is practically unthinkable. It's tragic because the kinds of bioremediation required lie well within the limits of technologies NZ farmers have adopted quite successfully. We would be good at this, if only we tried.

    • weka 9.1

      lovely quote. Agree, we could be world leaders.

    • Foreign waka 9.2

      Greed, Stuart is at the heart of it. It is cheaper to just use what's there and not spend any money on what could be done. Mind you, I have some reservations that any of these owners give a toss:

      "Together, these landowners have freehold ownership of 1.42m ha of land, more than 10% of all privately-owned land and about 5% of New Zealand’s total land area of 26.8m ha. That comes close to the 6.7% of total land RNZ could conclusively identify as Māori-owned."


    • Hunter Thompson II 9.3

      Reminded me of this quote from Robert Ingersoll:

      "In Nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences."

      I've been watching Boyan Slat's Ocean Cleanup lecture on Youtube. It gives me some hope for the future – although we should rely much less on plastics.

  10. AB 10

    Lowland lakes and rivers can't be monetised. They are not classically 'scenic' in the way that attracts tourists and the businesses that serve tourists. Nobody flocks to gawp at them, eat expensive meals at pleasant tables overlooking them, fly over them or jump off bits of the surrounding landscape attached to stretchy cords. Lowland lakes and rivers in fact are used by locals – to have a swim or kakak, to catch a couple of trout or eels for the smoker. And those locals expect to do it for free! Goddam them! No wonder we dump crap in them – because they offer no profit-taking opportunities other than as sewers.

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