Acknowledgement of Māori ownership of freshwater needed, leader says

12:04 pm on 29 August 2019

Success following the landmark Waitangi Tribunal report on fresh water degradation will require the Crown acknowledge Māori ownership rights over fresh water, a Māori leader says.

Rukumoana Schaafhausen.

Freshwater Iwi Leaders Group chairperson Rukumoana Schaafhausen. Photo: RNZ / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

Freshwater Iwi Leaders Group chairperson Ruku-moana Schaafhausen told Morning Report: "Success looks like the findings in that report being actioned. Success looks like - in my view and in the view of iwi chairs - is iwi and hapū working with this government to co-develop meaningful reforms that both address our rights and interests but at the same time improve the health of our waterways."

For that to happen, the Crown would have to acknowledge Māori ownership, she said.

She was optimistic that the report offered the government an opportunity to "not make the same mistakes as its predecessors".

Working on freshwater issues on an iwi by iwi basis fell short of recognising Māori rights to water, she said.

"All New Zealanders understand we cant wait for another 10-15 years to address this matter. Our waterways are degraded and under pressure. We must act and we must act together with the Crown and other parties to resolve this issue."

While all options were on the table - including court action, Ms Schaafhausen said she expected the Crown to respond positively and hoped to work together to avoid that.

But the Minister for the Environment, David Parker, said: "We are very happy to acknowledge there are Māori rights and interests in water. I don't know that it really takes you any further towards a solution to say that there are ownership rights in water, whether it's for Māori or non-Māori.

"That doesn't mean to say Māori are not fair in their aspiration to have water to develop their land, but you can do that without having a debate about ownership."

It was important to be "careful what you say in this space", he said.

"There would be some that say that people who already have rights to use water, who assume the right to automatically renew (those rights) have a bundle of rights that's getting very close to property rights and I have always disagreed with that proposition.

"But I have acknowledged that if you automatically roll over existing rights to use water in over-allocated catchments you are tantamount to creating a property right and in the Labour Party, we don't favour the creation of a property right."

The Hollyford River in Fiordland.

The Hollyford River in Fiordland. Photo:

Mr Parker said he agreed with the "laments" in the report about the degradation of water quality and added: "I agree that the system has failed Māori - and non-Māori actually.

"We've got announcements on that next week. We've said that after we've addressed water quality we'll move on to allocation issues, we're not dodging them but as this conversation has shown, they're not easy issues."

He also said he thought the wider Resource Management Act review should consider if the country needed a water commission.

The National Party's Crown-Māori Relations spokesperson, Nick Smith, said just like air, water was a natural resource.

"We worry that you end up with quite a divisive argument around ownership that distracts us from the real important issue for New Zealand that is: how do we improve the management of our water in a way that enables us to take greater economic opportunities from what is a tremendous resource, and at the same time improve its environmental standards."