Why Ngāi Tahu is suing the Crown over its waterways

Opinion by Lisa Tumahai
In a legal first, Ngāi Tahu has lodged a statement of claim in the High Court seeking recognition of rangatiratanga over its awa and moana, to address the ongoing degradation caused by the environmental mismanagement. Kaiwhakahaere Lisa Tumahai, explains why it’s long overdue.
We all know that something needs to be done about the water quality in our rivers and lakes in the South Island. Our natural environment is in a bad state and despite promises from elected officials for many years, action is long overdue. That is why Ngāi Tahu has notified the Government that we are going to court to force these matters to be addressed.
Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu as the representative body of Ngāi Tahu, and 15 tribal leaders, are asking the courts to make declarations that we have rangatiratanga over the wai māori (freshwater) of our takiwā, and that the Crown should engage with us to jointly design a better system to manage and care for our precious waterways.
Not Ownership
Rangatiratanga is not ownership. Owning something means using it however you like. Rangatiratanga as a concept and a practice encompasses rights, responsibilities and obligations. And that includes the obligation to do what we can to stop the continued degradation of our freshwater systems.
Our rangatiratanga in the Ngāi Tahu takiwā was recognised in our 1997 settlement with the Crown and in the act passed by Parliament in 1998 to make the settlement law. However, the source of rangatiratanga does not come from the Government, Parliament or, for that matter, the courts.
Rangatiratanga, as traditionally exercised by Ngāi Tahu since long before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, included managing the allocation and use of water in Te Waipounamu for food, for development and for sustainability. It was a sophisticated system. In Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere), for example, our people regulated the level of the lake by digging trenches to the sea, and managed the allocation of different areas of water between different hapū, often in exchange for other resources, using traditional knowledge and wisdom gained over centuries.
, Why Ngāi Tahu is suing the Crown over its waterways
Future Generations
Most importantly, rangatiratanga came with responsibilities to do this for the benefit of present and future generations, and to ensure that waterways were protected for the health of people and the natural environment. Compare that with the “first come, first served” system of the present day, which is based on an extractive right and allows people to take far more than they need, leading to severe over-allocations of water in the whole of the South Island.
Successive governments and legislation, like the Resource Management Act, have failed to allow Ngāi Tahu the full exercise of our rangatiratanga.
Filthy Rivers
 The results speak for themselves. Canterbury is the hardest hit, with filthy rivers and severely over-allocated water supplies. Otago and Southland are not much better. Now, our rangatiratanga obliges us to take action to stop the degradation of our rivers, streams and lakes. The Crown has consistently acknowledged that Māori have rights and interests in freshwater. Just as consistently, however, it has failed to meaningfully engage in partnership with Ngāi Tahu over the present and future of freshwater management in the South Island, despite our numerous attempts to find a solution. What progress has been made is piecemeal and inadequate. The Waitangi Tribunal in 2019 said in the report on Stage 2 of its Inquiry into Freshwater and Geothermal Resources that its hands were tied, and it could do no more to advance the matter of Māori rights and interests in freshwater until a test case was brought before the courts.
, Why Ngāi Tahu is suing the Crown over its waterways
Potentially toxic algae found in Canterbury River
Right Time
That just underscores why it is the right time for us to seek declarations in the High Court recognising our rangatiratanga over the wai, and also declaring what the Crown ought to do as a result of that recognition. We are seeking to have the Government work and co-operate with us to design a better system for water management, one that protects our environment, while still ensuring wai māori for food production and development.
We have already built on our traditional knowledge by investing in scientific research into the hydrology of our waterways.
We now want to work alongside all parts of the community to help find the best way forward, using the latest science and hydrology, and our ancient knowledge of our rivers, lakes and streams. Ngāi Tahu is in this fight for the future of our rivers along with all South Islanders, and indeed the rest of New Zealand.
This article first appeared in The Spinoff on 4 November 2020.


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4 Responses to Why Ngāi Tahu is suing the Crown over its waterways

  1. Rex Gibson says:

    Nga mihi Lisa,
    As Kaiwhakahaere o nga Kaitiaki o Te Waipounamu your opinion is very important to all of us who value water quality and the sports associated with wai ma. All anglers appreciate you speaking out and following it up with legal action that is beyond our resources. Ka pai e hoa.
    Rex Gibson

  2. Philip Brown says:

    I can sympathize with you on wanting fresh and clean waters in this land. What I don’t understand is the way you are going about remediating what you conceive as a disaster to our rivers.
    The way you speak ,I wonder what underlying objective is motivating you to ‘protect ‘ the waters of this land. You speak of ensuring food production. Are you proposing farming the waters of this land to provide the indigenous peoples with a sustainable food source?
    How do you determine that the rivers are severely overallocated? There is a lot of water abstracted from our rivers but this is subject to minimum flows. The Rakaia River has a significant abstraction rate but if you observe the figures for flood level flow ,there is still adequate water available to provide for aquatic life. There are also occasions when the Rakaia River is deemed to low on flow and abstraction has to cease. Historically the Rakaia River has had short periods of very low flow and this was before irrigation was instigated .

    • Peter Trolove says:

      Since CPW took up to 70 m3/sec, the trout fishery at the Rakaia River mouth has collapsed. The salmon fishery already in decline is virtually non existent.
      The internationally Red Listed Stokell’s smelt, once the most abundant fishery by mass, have all but disappeared. This fish looks likely to become the second native fish species to become extinct since the Southern Grayling.
      The Rangitata River has seen a similar disappearance of smelt resulting in gull and tern chicks starving to death
      Canterbury’s iconic braided are much more complex than “minimum flows” and “wasted flood water”.
      Both rivers have NWCOs which have been negated by the irrigation focused Ecan Act 2010
      The needs of the environment have been ignored for the sake of development and the profits of a few landowners

  3. Keith Hawkins says:

    It is with some trepidation i read this article. On one hand you claim maori want to have rangatiratanga over the awa in the south island on the other hand Ngai Tahu want to develope thousands of acres of dairy farms on the north side of the Waimakariri River. This dosent sit very well with looking after rivers.

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