Can we save the world from the banks of a stream?

17 May 2016 by The Million Metres team Auckland Council Auckland

Influential New Zealanders are joining the global call to preserve clean water and plant more trees. The Sustainable Business Network’s Million Metres project does both. 

The saying ‘Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au, I am the river, the river is me’ is not just philosophical poetry or mythology. It is a statement of fact. Up to 60% of the human adult body is water. About three quarters of the human brain and heart is water. Our lungs, muscles and kidneys are about 80% water. Even our bones are nearly one third water. People need between 2.5 and three litres of freshwater a day to live. Most of us would be dead in three days if we ran out.

And it’s not just us. Water is the main component of all life around us. It makes up 70 percent of the planet’s surface. Our world would be better known as Water than Earth.

But only about three per cent of the water on Earth is the freshwater we need. And most of that is either bound up in icecaps and glaciers or deep underground, even with the onset of climate change. Only 0.3% of it is easily available to us in lakes, rivers, streams and swamps. These most precious sources are what we are polluting. The damage has accelerated with our agricultural and industrial economy. It is now obvious to everyone.  

Studies of New Zealand’s lakes indicate that 44% of them are ‘eutrophic’. This is bad news. It means they are prone to toxic bacterial blooms, dangerous bacteria and oxygen-depleted ‘dead zones’ devoid of life. High levels of E.coli contamination make nearly two thirds of New Zealand’s rivers unsafe to swim in. And three quarters of native freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction.  

This emergency inspired the Sustainable Business Network to create the Million Metres Streams project. It has now also provoked national figures to take a stand. Former New Zealander of the Year Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond has called for a new Waterways Commission. The suggestion is a clear recognition of the scale of the problem. 

An environmental review team from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is due here next week. Let's see what they make of it. 

The Million Metres project is tackling it head on.

Georgina Hart, Million Metres project manager, says: “It’s encouraging to hear the public debate going on. But we are here for people who just want to crack on and do what they can to clean this mess up.”

Humanity’s response to climate change has also been years stuck at the debating table for years. Progress at last year’s Paris Climate Summit created an agreed global action plan. But the pressure is now on to make that plan a reality.

In response New Zealand business sustainability group Pure Advantage published a report last month. It called for a new national forest strategy that would halt deforestation and plant 1.3 million hectares of new forest. The Royal Society of New Zealand has added its prestigious academic voice into the mix. Its own weighty report also calls for more trees, although not as a substitute for other action.

Georgina takes great heart from these assessments.

“It confirms that we are doing the right thing,” she says. “It inspires us to do more.”

The Million Metres Streams project has already planted thousands of native trees around the country, alongside thousands of native shrubs and plants. The project's goal is to restore one million metres of the nation’s rivers and streams. This means it will be planting many thousands more trees in the months and years to come.

“It’s a start,” says Georgina. “But there is clearly room for plenty of other New Zealand organisations to step up to these challenges. We certainly won't solve them on our own.”