Conference Report: Trans -Tasman ‘States of Mind’ series, 2006: Water, Friday 27 October

Kate Hunter

Each year since 2001, the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University, sponsored by the Australian High Commission, has hosted a one-day trans-Tasman conference. These are broad-ranging and interdisciplinary conferences, attracting audiences of policy-makers, scholars and interested members of the public. The theme for 2006 was Water, and invited speakers were Wayne Ngata (Ngati Ira, Ngati Porou), David Young, (freelance historian) and Dr Marion Savill (ESR Christchurch) on the New Zealand side, and Dr Paul Sinclair (Environment Victoria), Dr Melita Stevens (Melbourne Water) and Tony McAvoy (Aboriginal barrister and Land Council adviser) from Australia.

The conference was opened by Wayne Ngata who laid out a theme that others were to return to during the day: that of relationships with and around water, the engagement with water rather than simply the use of it. The message that people care about the quality and quantity of water when they have a relationship with it was strengthened by the second session where both David Young and Paul Sinclair argued that the growing dislocation, particularly of urban populations from water was a contributing factor to its degradation. There are differences in the forms of degradation of rivers in Australia and New Zealand: the Victorians are now urgently concerned with quantity and management of flow in their rivers. The Murray has 70% of its flow removed for agriculture resulting now in vast swathes of degradation along its banks where once environmental flow sustained large floodplains and this has been exacerbated to crisis point by ten years of drought. In New Zealand, the key concern is water quality and indicator species such as the Whio (blue duck) and eels are signalling mounting crisis in our river systems. Both of these speakers, and the following session on water quality (Marion Savill is the Environmental Microbiology leader at ESR and Melita Stevens is the Drinking Water Quality Manager at Melbourne Water) emphasised the strong need for incentives for agriculture particularly to become more water efficient and to reduce water-polluting practices. Environment Victoria campaigns for ‘water efficiency ratings’ on labelling, Melbourne Water provides fencing materials, pipes and troughs to assist farmers to keep stock out of streams, and ESR are currently supporting the Sustainable Farming Fund, educating farmers on reducing microbial pollution.

Throughout these sessions, however, ran the thread of relationships: recreation created family and personal relationships with water; good working relationships between farmers and water utilities were essential to changing farming practices; those relationships were also important if water was to be valued, priced accordingly, and for farmers to be given fair prices for their produce without alienating urban consumers. In the final session Tony McAvoy, in a discussion of Native Title rights to water in Australia, reminded us that these relationships – or lack of them – are deeply historical and colonial, that in the juggle to allocate and extract water, cultural water has been totally ignored. When indigenous use of water was finally considered in legislation in the late twentieth century (most centrally in the Water Management Act 2000), there was no water to give indigenous people.

Overall, the conference had less historical content than I was expecting, but it was nonetheless a thought-provoking and at times slightly alarming day. Each break saw audience approach the water jugs more thoughtfully.