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Why fresh water is important

Fresh water underpins almost every aspect of life. Our freshwater environments provide a range of ecosystem services (the benefits we get from the natural environment) that support agriculture, industry, tourism, and the health and well-being of people and communities. The quality and quantity of fresh water are linked to the ecosystem services our fresh water can provide. For example, freshwater ecosystems can provide food, help control flooding, and naturally filter contaminants from water (eg Schallenberg et al, 2013).

We rely on having clean and plentiful water for ceremonial, recreational, and cultural activities, and for food gathering and drinking. Reduced water quality increases risks to public health and affects our ability to use freshwater environments for recreational purposes (McBride et al, 2002).

We value our fresh water for the aesthetics, spiritual associations, and sense of place we experience (Land Environment & People, 2010). These values are often not well defined and not easily measurable; some are also very localised. How a particular water body is valued will vary by person and depends on each individual’s experience (Berkett et al, 2013).

Every iwi and hapū has associations with particular freshwater bodies – streams, springs, rivers, lakes, wetlands, groundwater – that are reflected in their whakapapa (ancestral lineage), waiata (song), and whaikorero tuku iho (stories of the past) (New Zealand Government, 2014). Protecting the health and mauri (life force) of our freshwater ecosystems is also important for food, materials, customary practices, te reo Māori (Māori language), and overall well-being.

The varied freshwater ecosystems in New Zealand are rich in animal and plant biodiversity and have complex ecosystem processes. Modified water bodies and reduced water quality and quantity can have negative consequences for ecosystem function and species richness (Weeks et al, 2016).

Our economy depends on having a plentiful supply of water. Many aspects of primary industries, tourism, and hydroelectricity generation rely on the availability of fresh water. Primary industries and tourism significantly contribute to our gross domestic product and form a large part of our export market (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, 2013; Tourism New Zealand, 2015). Tourism’s contribution to total exports was $11.8 billion (17.4 percent of exports) in 2015, just behind dairy products, which totalled $14.2 billion (21 percent of exports) (Statistics NZ, 2015b). Primary industries and tourism are also among our country’s largest employers, directly employing an estimated 136,500 and 155,502 people, respectively, in 2012 (Statistics NZ, 2015b; Ministry for Primary Industries, 2014).