Freshwater Change - What will it take?


Access to clean freshwater is critical for the existence and advancement of our people in all our communities throughout New Zealand.

Better looking after one of our key water resources is not new. It is an old and long, but uncompleted story. The use and availability of clean freshwater is inextricably linked to our community’s well-being and our overall economic development and security. However, environmental impacts have been a side-effect of these aspirations.

We have created organisations, and we deploy technology to help us attain these aspirations. With greater awareness of the environmental effects of our aspirations, only recently have we began to elevate issues to do with environmental sustainability to become an important factor in our decision-making.

In this short article I will consider the release by Government of its Decisions on the national direction for freshwater (the Government Release) to provide a context to discuss my key question.

That question is how we will achieve both the immediate and longer term changes that the Government Release details. How and who does what to better look after the water resource has and still causes  friction, dispute and disagreement. How do we ensure we all work together, now and into the future for what will be a long term to achieve and maintain change in this freshwater space? What are the most effective tools that will lead to change and what type of change is needed?

Government Release - Decisions on the national direction for freshwater

Prominent within the Government Release is the call for actions directed at the primary goal of quickly preventing further freshwater degradation. There are a range of other longer term actions set against a time line to ensure healthier freshwater over time. The Government Release notes success requires a long-term commitment that will require all of us to work together.

Many, but not all of the actions in the Government Release focus on the use of freshwater within the agriculture industry. For example there are action steps to exclude stock from waterways, stronger controls for feedlots and stocking areas along with interim restrictions on major agricultural intensification.

The requirement, applying to all pastoral sectors, with dairy farmers being required to report the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser application annually to Regional Councils the weight of nitrogen applied per hectare is a feature. Also a feature is the introduction of restrictions on certain intensification activities until regional councils have implemented the new long-term plans for freshwater management to comply with the new NPS-FM.

Resource consents are needed for land use change to dairy farming of more than 10 ha, irrigation expansion on dairy farms of more than 10 ha and land-use changes of more than 10 ha from woody vegetation or plantation forestry to pastoral farming and expansion of intensive winter grazing or dairy support activities above historic levels.

These action steps are directed at holding the line in terms of water quality. The Minister has, many times, made it clear preventing water quality from getting worse is both an immediate and very important goal.

Some key issues relating to water quality remain to be addressed in particular dealing with nitrogen and phosphorous. Decisions on both have been deferred for 12 months.

Implementation of the Government Release rests with regional councils. In the past, some, have been particularly critical of the regional council’s alleged poor track records in developing freshwater plans, implementing them and ensuring monitoring and compliance occurs.

In response to the Government Release spokespeople from industry and environmental interest groups Government Released media comment supporting the Government Release.  Some expressed satisfaction that their needs and interests had been listened to with consequent reflection within the Government Release.  

In detail some primary industry group spokespeople noted that after the government was aware of the financial implications of intended changes Government modified the Government Release to appropriately respond.

On the other hand environmental groups express concern that the Government Release did not go far enough in terms of protecting the environment, being critical that dealing with nitrogen and phosphorous remained outstanding.

A Consensus approach

Not unexpectedly the media comment responding to the Government Release from the various interest groups reflects their long held positions in relation to freshwater.

While this type of response is not unexpected to date many key stakeholders within the freshwater debate have committed themselves to consensus-based approaches. Examples are the Land and Water Forum and the Canterbury Regional Council’s approach of establishing zone implementation committees.

In the early days of the Land and Water forum, position taking by interest groups was the norm. However with adroit chairmanship and leadership from participants, levels of consensus on freshwater issues emerged from the forum.

The zone implementation committees are made up of a range of interested parties. The same consensus process informed by science has to a large extent been accepted as a success leading to better outcomes for freshwater quality and allocation in Canterbury.

So the first part answer to the question is to have processes that involve collaboration. We know and understand if we have been involved in reaching a decision or making the rules we are more likely to support the decision and or comply with the rules.

The Government process concluding with the Government Release involved extensive collaboration. So we are off to an excellent start. But more is required to achieve change through actions.

The science - understanding it and availabity of relevant information

The management and use of water not only by agricultural activity but arising from urban activity is a complex issue. We need, and do, utilise science to understand effects of these activities on natural water and our ecology.

Over, say the last decade, there has been considerable improvement in the science related to water quality. While uncertainty remains we understand much more than previously.

Another real improvement is improved communication of the science enabling greater understanding by many more of the issues, cause and possible remedies.

Supporting the public drive  for water quality improvement publications from the Ministry for the Environment such as the National Rivers water quality report inform the general public of the  poor water quality state of our waterways as well is the cause.

Such reports record that discharges from agricultural pollutants into waterways and the use for irrigation are some of the largest threats to the long-term health of our water resources. At the same time through other sources the public is informed that agriculture is a core part of New Zealand’s economy that is reliant on access to freshwater.

Other publicly available information from government departments informs the public that urban wastewater treatment plants and other urban activities are also having a serious adverse environmental impact on water quality.

With the information that is available and explanation of the science in a way that laypeople can understand it is increasingly obvious, if not accepted, that environmental challenges causing degrading water quality in both  rural and  urban settings result from unsustainable patterns of human behaviour or activity.

Enough is known and understood to want change. We have reached the point of where the poor state of our freshwater resources was at the last general election a key issue.  New Zealanders want improvement in freshwater quality. While there is a relationship between increases in environmental knowledge leading to environmental awareness and concern, it’s reasonably clear that more information itself does not necessarily lead to an increase in positive actions leading to behaviour change. More is required.

However the Government and many others still rely on using information to drive change. This is despite the fact what we need to do is change habits and behaviours. Changing habits and behaviours is a very challenging task even when it’s clear new behaviours can lead to obvious benefits.

So while these tools are helpful against this maze of countervailing and competing considerations and levels of uncertainty, and evidence to commitment to collaborate to bring about change how can and what is required to bring about pro-environmental behaviour.

Social Change

Improving water quality it is much more than just a scientific issue or a communication or information issue.  It is a social political problem as well.

We know there are a very complex range of factors that exist in terms of motivating pro-environmental behaviour to avoid and prevent or mitigate and reduce adverse impacts on water quality.

In many contexts social change is recognised as critical in terms of achieving outcomes. An obvious and very recent example is Covid-19. Helpfully for our country we had the benefit of overseas experience in dealing with Covid-19 to help our understanding of its risks and the harm it could cause to our communities. We also had the benefit of seeing other countries deploy differing strategies to combat Covid-19.

Once the harm and damage Covid-19 could cause was understood and once the community understood social changes would be required we were well on our way to combating Covid-19.

However in the Covid-19 circumstance there was a singular purpose shared among the population to act as a team of 5 million and together defeat Covid-19. With water quality while the entire team of 5 million is effected by water quality outcomes, that team is divided on who should do what and by when.

Even so we know that social positive change in terms of behaviour change is a powerful influence on individuals and how they see themselves. In the Covid-19 context none of us wanted to be recognised as a rule breaker. So peer group pressure and or a willingness to comply and not be seen as failing are important factors in social change.

In the environmental context people concerned about climate change seek to reduce carbon emissions by say taking public transport. Consequently they identify themselves as someone who cares about climate change based on their behaviour and actions.

So what needs to be done to achieve social change to encourage and motivate individuals to engage in pro-environmental behaviour so that we ultimately achieve the gains in water quality? We already have many effective social change tools but the more the better.

Fundamental Acknowledgements

Fundamentally, it seems we do need to find an optimum balance between attaining and meeting our human aspirations and the needs of the environment.

Currently the prevailing approach on water use is the economic growth model particularly for the primary sector. In urban areas water quality issues similar to waste disposal issues past most by on a daily basis. City occupants do not dwell on how and what effect stormwater and or waste water discharges have on the environment. Out of sight out of mind would be the norm.

In primary industry sector less focus on economic growth alone and further elevating the needs of the environment is needed. In urban environments we need to continue to advance greater awareness of our community’s impacts on water quality and what we can on a collective and individual basis do, to improve water quality.

Better quality science and information communicated so that it can be understood is a crucial factor in facility any potential change. But is not only about communicating the problem that causes disengagement. Communicate the problem as a challenge but include an accompanying achievable solution then we are closer to gaining buy in.

So policy and rule makers, as well as providing for rules and objectives that are clear certain enforceable, and objectives achievable could helpfully include consideration of possible solutions. Combined with a consultative process, this a powerful tool that we do make some use of, but more is needed.

Legislation including rules are critical. However legislation takes time to be put in place. Clearly legislation is in part intended to change behaviours primarily through compliance and enforcement and prosecution methods. So stripped down motivation to comply comes from fear of being caught and consequent punishment. So legislation targets only some of the drivers of social change.

In health fields there are many examples of national social marketing that uses information based advertising to increase awareness of a health issue. The anti-smoking camping is a good example. Underlying this approach is the assumption increasing knowledge of an issue combined with encouraging the development of attitudes that support an activity will lead to behaviour change. Research shows while good in theory increasing knowledge and creating supportive attitudes has little or no impact on behaviour.

However using a variation of social marketing in a community context can be effective at bringing about behaviour change. Broadly the method includes selecting the behaviour to be promoted, identifying the benefits and barriers linked with the behaviour and piloting the strategy with community members then evaluating as the programme is more broadly implemented. The zone communities the Canterbury Regional Council utilises to both inform the content of and help implements its water plan utilise some of these approaches.

Farmers as distinct from urban dwellers have strong local community networks. So methods that enable peer group evaluation and judgement of on farm performance one farmer against another is a powerful change tool. So exchanging information and feedback between a group with common interests and sharing a common context is an effective way of changing and improving behaviours.


Achieving better water quality is a complex challenge. So solutions will likely be complex involving layers of interrelated actions.

We have improvements in the science linked to water quality. We have improved communication of that science and water quality information in general. Information alone does not lead to behavioural change and actions.

We have legislation planning instruments and policies providing objectives, methods and rules, and penalties for compliance in relation to fresh water. All involve detailed consultative processes. Again rules and policies while helpful by themselves do not lead to changes.

Linking all of the above with maximising the power of social change opportunities is a solid approach to obtaining change leading to more pro-environmental behaviour from more people in rural and urban settings.

If you have any questions about this article please get in touch with one of the Adderley Head team.

Disclaimer: This is a brief summary for information purposes only and is not legal advice.

Posted on Thursday 11th June, 2020 at 03:07 pm