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Every day each New Zealander pours and flushes an average of around 350 litres of water down the sewer pipes (Hauber, 1995). This includes water used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing, showering, laundering and flushing the lavatory. It doesn't include the water used to sprinkle the lawn and garden, or the vast amounts used for processing and manufacturing, for irrigating pastures and crops, and for sustaining livestock. Some of this water evaporates as steam or respiration and re-enters the atmosphere. However, a large proportion is harnessed, transformed (i.e. made cleaner or dirtier), and discharged back into the environment.

New Zealanders, whether at home or at work, on the farm or in the factory, have long prospered from the consumption and harnessing of water, and from the discharge of wastes into it. Now, the new growth industries of tourism and recreation are finding prosperity in people's desire to visit unspoilt rivers and lakes. This trend stems from the growing appreciation of nature and the growing awareness that 'our' water resources also belong to the other species that depend on them and the future generations that will depend on them in centuries to come.

Māori culture has contributed to the new awareness. In Māori tradition, water is perceived as having a life essence (mauri) which is easily degraded if the water is diverted or polluted. Streams, rivers, lakes, estuaries and harbours are therefore seen not only as vital sources of fish and seafood but as living beings which have their own intrinsic value. Māori protests over the pollution of sacred waters and of fishing and food-gathering areas have played an important part in shifting the focus of water management from an exclusive emphasis on stocks and flows to a much greater concern for maintaining water quality and ecosystems.

New Zealanders' evolving views of water are reflected in the legislation changes of the last half century. The Soil Conservation & Rivers Control Act 1941 was primarily concerned with stemming erosion, sedimentation and flooding. The Water & Soil Conservation Act 1967 put greater emphasis on water quality and water allocation. The Wild and Scenic Rivers amendment to the Act in 1983 focused on the aesthetic and recreational aspects of rivers in their natural state. Now, under the Resource Management Act 1991, the intrinsic values of ecosystems, including their biodiversity and life supporting capacity, must be considered when managing water, and the emphasis has changed from multiple-use management to environmentally sustainable management.

This chapter outlines the main features of New Zealand's water environment, the main pressures that people impose on it, the state of the water as far as we can tell, and society's responses to the environmental problems affecting our water.