PO Box 108 - 11 Mount Cook Street
Twizel New Zealand
Phone 64 3 4353 227 Fax 64 3 4353 227




The Living Waters of Aotearoa

The Dying Waters of New Zealand


Haikai Tane

Adjunct Professor, Sustainable Development, HES, UNITEC

Director Watershed Systems Center for Catchment Ecology,

Mt Cook St, PO Box 108, Twizel.


This paper explores the key roles of culture, science and technology in sustainable watershed management. It challenges the belief that water resource management focused mainly on science and technology offers effective solutions to the worldwide water crisis. Priority needs to be given to rebuilding cultural intelligence and social systems that reflect the fundamental role of watersheds and floodplain ecosystems in providing sustainable supplies of clean, fresh water.

The observation that the water industry is unable to produce significant long-lasting improvements in the health of our rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries, is not new. The issue however, is not about judging the professions and allocating blame, for this detracts from the underlying problem ~ that the "drainage catchment" paradigm imposed by British immigrants in the South Pacific is fundamentally flawed. It results in watersheds loosing their ability to produce healthy water, generates unsustainable resource systems and offends traditional Pacific cultures that require respect for "waiora" ~ living water.

The history and evolution of international law for sustainable development and environmental conservation of watersheds, demonstrates time and again that scientific and technical solutions are counter-productive and prone to failure unless they are empowered by cultural attitudes that respect living water. From the 1968 UNESCO/UN conference on Man and the Biosphere to the 1992 United Nations Rio Accord (UN Agenda 21), the international community has brokered strategies for social and cultural solutions to resource development and environmental management of watersheds and waterways. This is the immediate challenge for Aoteaora, Australia and the rest of Oceania.


Haikai Tane BA(Hons) LLB MSc MNZPI MAURISA is Director of the Watershed Systems Centre for Catchment Ecology. Professor Haikai Tane is a biogeographer, landscape ecologist and environmental planner with 30 years pan-Pacific experience ~ mainly in Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand. Recognised internationally for his R&D work in geospatial information systems and environmental planning for sustainable development, in May 2000, Haikai Tane was inaugurated Adjunct Professor, Sustainable Development in the Health and Environmental Science Faculty UNITEC, Auckland.



O-oooh the Water ~ let it flow all over me

Van Morrison

In the Asia-Pacific region the dominant myths and cultural paradigms of pre-European societies displayed profound respect for living waters flowing naturally. From infancy children were taught water ethics by way of myths, legends and community example. To offend is to invoke the wrath of atua, taniwha or bunyip~ spiritual guardians of living waters.

In Auckland at UNITEC ~ Te Whare Wananaga o Wairaka ~ cultural attitudes and practices are actively maintained through teachings at the Puukenga, through ceremony, songs and chants ~ karakia ~ at the sacred spring ~ Te Wai Unuroa o Wairaka ~ and through working to principles agreed in the Partnership ~ to Noho Kotahitanga.

The question then is ~ why is the Wairaka Stream subjected to poisons, pesticides, polluted effluents and contaminated storm waters all within a few hundred meters of its source at the sacred spring. No, this is not the time for surprise or shame; the situation is so typical of New Zealand watersheds that the Wairaka watershed is a characteristic example, a cultural microcosm of waterway misuse and abuse throughout New Zealand.

Calls to safeguard the sacred spring ~ Te Wai Unuroa O Wairaka ~ came via the arts in painting, poem and song, like the Waiora painting of Hare Williams. The call was answered firstly by resuming spiritual rituals and social ceremonies to rebuild respect for living waters at UNITEC. These were followed by formal requests for water professionals to assess the situation.

Recently, water quality sampling undertaken at the Wairaka Spring, painted a rosy picture of clean water well within NZ standards (URS 2002). Superficially, all seemed in order and the results indicate there is no significant threat from the spring water to pumps, pipes and other infrastructure envisaged for future water reticulation.

The underlying assumption however, points to a far more serious problem. The water quality survey did not test key indicators for sustaining life, like dissolved oxygen or assess environmental risks and public health hazards from water borne pathogens. Typically, the water was treated as a physical resource to be assessed by its chemical properties. Understanding living water as suites of dynamic ecosystems and symbiotic communities is considered a separate issue from water quality and yield. This highlights a serious cultural dilemma. Increasingly, the rise of science is related to the death of Nature (Merchant 1980).

With the benefits of hindsight it is indeed ironical that the decline in the health and condition of our watersheds and waterways parallels rising belief in science and technology as the paramount knowledge based paradigm for watershed management.


Living waters,

Sustain life sweetly

Dying waters are poisonous

Koorinesian poem

Our Rivers are Dying

Once the greatest threat from our rivers and streams was accidental drowning. How things have changed. These days you are more likely to die from drinking the water.

At UNITECís Carrington Campus students and staff have observed that all is not well with the sacred Wairaka Spring. Some see the sacred spring being polluted by chemical poisons, toxic wastes and invasive weeds. Others treat it as a drain. The once pure waters of the Wairaka Stream are now te waimate, very unhealthy and probably poisonous in places.

No longer do our waterways produce clean, fresh water, suitable for drinking, cleaning and bathing. Now they produce "raw" water unfit for human consumption, ritual cleansing or body contact. Pesticides and pathogens, urban effluents and agricultural nutrients are poisoning our waterways. Mostly going unnoticed, countless millions of minor offences are gradually turning our streams, rivers and lakes into environmental health hazards. Viewed from a Pacific cultural perspective, our rivers and streams are slowly dying.

In traditional Pacific societies where environmental systems were commonly shared and protected through customary practices akin to modern condominium title, living waters were protected by mythological guardians and treated with due respect by all "or else". These cultural practices were misconstrued by colonial missionaries to be the pagan beliefs of uncivilised peoples. Consequently, strenuous efforts were made to replace the indigenous "animist" water models entirely ~ with European concepts of private property and "professional scientific" management.

This proved no easy task for cultural myths and legends are usually more durable than those of science and technology. It took two hundred years to superimpose science as the only "knowledge" really considered, that is until the Resource Management Act 1989 imposed consideration of wairua and consultation with local iwi. Historically, traditional myths and legends reflecting cultural and spiritual knowledge received mere lip service on formal occasions.



Photo of The Spring



Dysfunctional watersheds and waterways have become so common in recent times that it is increasingly difficult to find one in healthy condition operating to their ecological potential. Common symptoms of dysfunctional watersheds are depleted aquifers, empty riverbeds, frequent hazardous floods, extensive stream instability, degraded floodplains, poor water quality and extensive weed invasion. The symptoms have become so widespread they are often considered natural features by Australian and New Zealand colonial cultures (Tane 1999). Waterways degraded and left derelict from centuries of human impacts are being glorified mistakenly as wild rivers and proposed for protection as natural areas.

Consider an example from the South Island high country, such as the Waitaki River and its watershed tributaries. Under human occupation, the Tekapo, Pukaki, Ohau, Ahuriri and Waitaki Rivers have degenerated into gravel laden braided rivers exhibiting extreme environmental degradation. Gravel laden glacial rivers are normally found in alpine zones immediately below retreating glaciers. In the case of the Waitaki system however, glacial outwash conditions now extend throughout the lakes and river system to the estuary and ocean. When glacial river morphologies extend into warm temperate river valleys, below large lakes that operate as retention basins for alluvial materials, there is something fundamentally wrong with environmental management of the waterways and watershed (Tane 1999).

Programs like the Department of Conservationís Project River Recovery in the Waitaki high country continue to offend visiting watershed scientists. After several weeks fieldwork in the Waitaki Lakes district one group declared "these things should not happen in civilised countries". Project river Recovery promotes river instability by poisoning, slashing, bulldozing and burning long established riparian communities in misguided attempts to create sub-alpine periglacial habitats in warm temperature river valleys (Tane 1999). The underlying rationale for this program is to exploit the ecotourism potential for endangered species such as the black stilt near major tourist routes, places where previously they were uncommon (Waitaki Basin Study 1978). Instead of addressing restoration of wildlife habitats in the heads of glacial river valleys where the black stilt were once numerous, the program increasingly relies on nativist beliefs and commercial ecotourism for justification.

While the natural history, ecological potential and traditional knowledge corroborate the existence of floodplain forests and stable wetlands along the Waitaki waterways, colonial myths are being created that inadvertently glorify the results of centuries of abuse and misuse as "wild and natural". In Canada, China and Japan cultural intelligence and conventional wisdom clearly identifies watershed degradation and diagnoses the remedy as watershed reforestation (Totman 1989; Pilarski 1989). Contradictory models touted in New Zealand show up our watershed and waterway management as sadly deficient (Tane 2000).

Across the Tasman in Australia, a landmark Australian study of the Billabong watershed in the Murray-Darling Basin highlights similar cultural dilemmas (Woodward-Clyde 1999). This multi-disciplinary watershed audit demonstrated that burning, draining and grazing the landscape left a legacy of dysfunctional floodplains and riparian ecosystems. Lacking understanding of the history of burning and land use impacts under historic and pre-historic cultures, the community today believe that planting native trees will correct land and water degradation. The audit clearly documents and demonstrates how many of the native Eucalypt and wattle species are key parts of the overall problem as a result of their phytotoxic, ecotoxic and pyrophytic properties.

The Billabong watershed audit also showed that introduced and naturalised species like willow and blackberry were successfully restoring riparian ecosystems and floodplain streams to ecological functionality through natural processes. This finding is clearly abhorrent to "nativists" who believe in the inherent superiority of native species.

In Canberra, the National Capital of Australia, 19th century heritage plantings of weeping willows along the Molonglo River formed riparian habitats that harboured the few remaining colonies of platypus and water dragons in the area. In the late 1990ís many of the willows were killed and removed simply for being "introduced species". More recently, on Christmas Eve 2001, three electronically controlled incendiary time bombs were placed in the exotic forests and woodlands on the southern shores of Lake Burley Griffen near the heart of Canberra. The resulting wildfire created a life-threatening situation that caused many millions of dollars damage. Within days, local nativists were calling for replanting with native species (MDBC 2002).

There are many examples on both sides of the Tasman showing the dangers of the exotic "pest and weed" mentality. For example, in Tasmania during the 1990ís, the Hobart Rivulet was "botanically cleansed" of heritage willows at the repeated request of local nativists. The results included a new cycle of stream erosion and estuarine deposition jeopardising property and infrastructure. Increased sedimentation in the harbour at the mouth of the Rivulet seriously affected moorage and navigation. The substantial costs for repairs and remedial works were met from the public purse.

In 1996, in a keynote address to an international conference in Scotland on integrated watershed management, I warned that the greatest threat to the health and integrity of our watersheds and waterways in the decade ahead would come from conservation programs based on nativist dogmas (Tane 1996). Nativism, the belief in the inherent superiority of native species is a founding tenet of fascism. It has re-emerged in the guise of nature conservation based on the spatial segregation of biota on the basis of race, genera and species. Called biological apartheid in Europe it is closely associated with ecofascism.

In my experience outspoken critics of nativist programs are vilified and abused while the program is defended as "good science". How "science" can justify the poisoning and destruction of rivers and floodplains is left unanswered.

Eroded aquifers

Ground water is the general term used to describe the complex suites of soil, regolith and bedrock aquifers. Aquifers are water-bearing strata beneath the land surface. They may be found close the surface, down deep in bedrock and many places in between. They may be unconfined and free flowing like underground streams found in lava tubes. Or they may be confined and contained to specific strata like an underground reservoir or artesian basin.

More often than not however, aquifers nearer the surface are slow seeps moving at rates usually less than a meter a day, with the water dispersed as moisture among the permeable strata and organic deposits.

When aquifers link together and connect with surface waters, as they do in healthy watersheds, the landscape below ground level becomes a large reliable reservoir storing, processing, filtering, and releasing clean, fresh water (Tane 1996, 1999; Woodward-Clyde 1999). Instead of floodwaters being drained quickly from the landscape, they are stalled, stored and gradually infiltrated into the regolith through connected sequences of floodplain habitats and ecosystems called ecostructures (Tane 1999b). In Australia, this newly rediscovered indigenous knowledge is now being applied in natural floodplain systems for cleaning waste effluents and urban storm waters through aquifer injection technologies (Woodward-Clyde 1999, Tane 1999).

One of the key elements in the growth and behaviour of aquifers is their ecological role in establishing and developing underground reservoirs complete with organic films forming bio-hydraulic seals. The bio-hydraulic seals perform cybernetic functions controlling the release rates of stored water (Tane 2001). In permeable strata the geophysical conditions are inadequate to maintain the aquifers so biological processes forming organic membranes are needed to confine them ecologically. Dynamic soil and regolith ecologies allow "perched" aquifers to develop higher up in mountain watersheds and on steeper slopes than is commonly supposed. Reservoirs of ground water containing many years supply at naturally controlled released rates are common in healthy floodplains, talus slopes and colluvial fans in healthy watersheds with functioning ecostructures. Releasing the stored moisture slowly through bogs and flushes, seeps, springs and the vegetated sides of streams helps ensure sustainable yields of fresh, clean water through natural processes.

When aquifers are breached, degraded, drained or eroded they quickly loose their ability to stall, store and cleanse water efficiently. Degraded and eroded aquifers discharge stored waters at accelerated rates, often loaded with excess sediments, nutrients and pathogens. If the rate of discharge exceeds the rate of recharge, they can dry out completely. When this occurs the aquifer strata can collapse leaving behind land subsidence, tunnel erosion and erosion gullies. Over extensive areas of rural New Zealand and Australia, this process probably occurred for the first time on a massive scale with repeated, widespread burning by the first peoples. By the time the first European settlers arrived there was already significant waterway degradation in drier high country basins where firing was easiest. For the most part however, the waterways of New Zealand still carried healthy water suitable for drinking without treatment.

With widespread burning, clearing and draining of land by European immigrants for pastoral grazing, farming and urban settlements, far more serious degradation occurred from which the watersheds and waterways have not yet recovered. For colonial peoples lacking cultural models of watershed ecostructures, draining and grazing the landscape is not linked to aggravated erosion risks and flooding hazards, nor is it recognised that it generates the conditions for distributing pathogens, poisons and pollutants.

Hazardous floods

Other than episodic events that occur perhaps once in 100-1000 years, hazardous floods are usually the result of human impacts and watershed mismanagement.

Like Japan, some 70% of New Zealand landscapes are steep mountain lands dissected by faults and regularly influenced by tectonic forces. Until the 15th century Japanís mountain lands were progressively deforested, resulting in the fertile floodplains prized for cultivation being transformed into broad braided, gravel beds by raging rivers and amplified floods. Visionary leadership in the 16th century reversed the tide and through watershed reforestation, Japanís steep lands were once again covered in mature forests and woodlands managed sustainably. As a result the rivers and floodplains were restored to health and stability and the braided gravel riverbeds disappeared. In the centuries since, they have sustainable arable cropping systems and generated a substantial proportion of Japanís food supply (Totman 1989).

Over the past 25 years, geographical comparisons between Japan and New Zealand have repeatedly demonstrated the inadequacy of watershed management in New Zealand. Still the colonial myth persists that the degraded watersheds and dysfunctional rivers of New Zealand are somehow "wild and natural". Because generations of New Zealanders have grown accustomed to these catastrophic conditions they now accept them as natural and normal. In a perverse twist of events, NZ Government programs now spend substantial resources on preserving these dysfunctional watersheds and protecting them from natural processes of ecological restoration in the name of nature conservation and resource management. No wonder international delegations and visiting watershed scientists observe that we are "light years behind".

Most hazardous and damaging floods are not natural or necessary, far from it. Floods are natural ecological events essential for restoring and maintaining the environmental health of river systems (Tane 1993). Periodic floods become hazardous through cultural ignorance of the role of watersheds and functions of floodplains. Historic records from many cultures indicate that watershed and floodplain mismanagement are probably the most common causes of damaging floods (Hillel 1989, Tane & Xingzhao 1993). When watersheds and floodplains are abused and degraded, their ecostructures are disabled and then even relatively small rainfall events can wreak havoc leaving a legacy of unstable streams.

Stream instability includes a range of characteristic features from unstable banks and beds, to gravel-laden distributaries, swales and runnels. While rising landscapes pushed upward by tectonic forces like earthquakes can provoke and maintain stream instability until a new equilibrium is attained, in stable areas like aggradational basins east of the main fault blocks of the Australian plate, uplifting landscapes are convenient excuses for mismanaged watersheds and waterways.





A Canadian biologist, Dr Ron Griffiths, the bug man of BioMapping fame, claims that the health of a river is inversely related to the number of engineers managing the watershed (Griffiths 2001). While making an interesting hypothesis to test in the South Pacific, I believe that judging the professions and allocating blame detracts from the underlying problem; that the drainage catchment culture imposed by British immigrants is dysfunctional and unsustainable in the South Pacific (Tane 2000).

Restoring the environmental health of watersheds is a multi-disciplinary exercise within social-cultural processes of environmental planning and resource assignment, involving at the very least

Watershed Geography Mapping, Modelling, Monitoring

Landscape Ecology Diagnosing the Dilemma

Environmental Planning Participatory Watershed Programs

Sustainable Development Integrated Resource Management

Multi-cultural Perspectives Integrating Culture, Science and Technology


If there is a single indicator of the environmental condition of watershed catchments, it is the health of the water they generate. Health is a cultural term not readily measured by NZ standards for water quality testing as indicated in an earlier section. There is really no need however, for sophisticated sciences to define the health of waterways. Either watersheds or waterways produce clean, fresh water that is safe to drink untreated, or they donít. Policies based on pollution standards operate as licenses to pollute up to the level set. For this reason water quality policies for environmental health are usually straight forward and simply stated

"to improve and maintain water quality so that it is fit and healthy

for human contact and consumption from the source to the sea".

Anything less is admission of a failing culture, one that is avoiding responsibility for the health of our children and their children.

Historically, colonial societies are notorious for imposing changes in ignorance that are completely at odds with the environment they are seeking to inhabit. The Roman conquest of Europe imposed the concept of private property in things thought natural, like land and water. The privatisation of nature has proceeded to the point today that private corporations beyond the control of nation states are successfully registering private property rights in water resources essential to all life. By dividing nature into little bits of private property for sale and separate ownership, the integrity of Nature is compromised and living water is lost.

Exclusive private property in land or water was unknown or discouraged in the south Pacific before European peoples arrived. Highly productive perennial polycultures called terraquacultures were developed in mimicry of natural landscape ecologies. Research in recent decades confirms what many have long suspected. Measured in terms of total land productivity and sustainable livelihoods per hectare, terraqueous polycultures out perform specialized western agro-industries economically and ecologically. They maintain high levels of sustained productivity, without the need for chemical fertilisers or other poisonous inputs (Ruddle et all 1988, Madeley 2001).

In Australia and New Zealand, the dominant European culture views water as a physical resource to be allocated by legal mechanisms for property assignment. Water is primarily a physical resource called H20, captured by drainage catchments and reticulated by engineers. As a result, river managers and catchment scientists remain trapped within the plumbing and drainage model of catchment hydrology (Tane 1996). By this model rivers and streams are part of the plumbing infrastructure of drainage catchments. In assuming watersheds operate as drainage systems, society treats them as drains.

The concept of drainage catchments fundamentally undermines the integrity of watersheds and their landscape ecostructures; natural suites of connected habitats that store, distribute and cleanse living waters sustainably (Tane 2000).

In the absence of cultural attitudes that respect living waters, hydrological science and industrial technologies cannot provide a solution to our dying rivers. They do not have the appropriate cultural and ecological tools for the job. In recent decades water resource R&D in the Oceana realm has gobbled up millions of dollars yet still the waterways are polluted and their waters unfit to drink. Nowhere in settled New Zealand (or Australia) can you drink natural surface waters without fear of disease, unless they come direct from unpolluted aquifers.

The growing sophistication and costs of purifying water is symptomatic of dysfunctional watersheds and over-reliance on technological "fixes" to environmental problems. The water industry is urgently reassessing measures for reticulated water supplies now that traditional treatment methods have proven unreliable. Ecological management of water supplies mimicking slow filtration through sand beds commonly found in natural floodplains is now recommended for effective control of harmful protozoa (Curds 1992).

Clearly, there are important environmental health issues involved in watershed management. Water is essential to all life. The quality of life reflects the quality of living waters. This fundamental relationship applies to all animals living in the environment; including Homo sapiens.

Overriding public health and environmental issues in watersheds and waterways need urgent attention. It would be wise to reassess and restructure administrative, professional and managerial responsibility for watershed management and water supply. In pursuing the path of sustainable development it is imperative that society eliminates poisons, pathogens and pollutants from watersheds and waterways. As far as possible this should be through developing cultural respect rather than imposing legal mechanisms. Top priority needs to be given to rebuilding cultural intelligence and related social systems that reflect the fundamental role of watersheds and riparian ecostructures in providing sustainable supplies of healthy water.

Functional Watersheds

As watersheds and waterways mature and evolve their water storage and cleansing capacity, they are also capable of taking into natural aquifer storage more water than runs off in most rainfall events. Commonly two thirds of a rainfall event is taken into aquifer storage, while only one-third is discharged to streams and rivers. In eroded and degraded watersheds with dysfunctional aquifers and ecostructures, the opposite is the case. Most of the rainfall runs off quickly taking with it loads of sediments and nutrients contaminated with pathogens, poisons and pollutants. Consequently, maintaining the health and integrity of watersheds and waterways has a major bearing on reducing the severity of flooding while simultaneously ensuring sustainable yields of fresh, clean water.

In the next section, the waterborne pathogens and environmental health hazards associated with degraded waterways and dysfunctional watersheds are reviewed.




Living waters contain countless billions of microbes, nearly all of them beneficial or benign to humans. When water is contaminated and polluted however, the water also harbours potentially dangerous levels of pathogens and poisons.

Public attention to waterborne health hazards from polluted and contaminated water is moving into the national limelight. More and more communities and public organisations perceive threats to their interests from polluted waters and degraded watersheds. If New Zealand lags behind in this respect it is probably because water availability has hardly been a limiting factor in social and economic activities until recently. Internationally, the crisis in water resources has been a major issue for many decades, even centuries in some places, but here it is news (Weekend Herald 11-12 May 2002).

Excrement from domestic livestock, storm water runoff from urban and rural areas, sewage and waste effluents and even native waterfowl are closely associated with a wide range of waterborne public health hazards. For the purposes of this discussion, waters can be classified as either infected or contaminated by potentially harmful levels of (a) pathogens (b) poisons or (c) pollutants.



Most of the common waterborne pathogens are connected closely with dysfunctional watersheds and waterways. In the following sections I have summarised the main pathogens and characteristic features of waterways that threaten the health of humans and their environment. It is not exhaustive or definitive survey. Rather it is an overview of waterborne pathogens identified recently by the author in a scoping exercise for auditing the environmental health of waterways. Further technical details on individual pathogens may be found in Raven & Johnson (1992) and Talaro & Talaro (1996).


Water contaminated by harmful bacteria cause many health hazards. The key ones in New Zealand follow.


Mobile, animal like single celled microbes called protozoa are mostly beneficial and very necessary. Living unseen and unheard everywhere in the environment and within our bodies, like beneficial bacteria we take them for granted. Or we did - until widespread immigration and international tourism created the ways and means for waterborne protozoan pathogens to disperse to all parts of the globe, literally.

The nasty few water borne protozoa that invade the body and become parasites were once rare and obscure pathogens found in very few places around the world. More and more however, these protozoa are emerging as debilitating infections and life threatening diseases. People with depressed immune systems are particularly susceptible often with dire consequences.


Poisoning from polluted waters, particularly those with spent algal blooms is becoming a major problem in Australia and New Zealand. Algae are photosynthetic (plant like) protists that historically played a significant role in increasing the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere of the planet. When algal populations explode however, as a result of nutrient enrichment and eutrophication of waterways, the dangers of algal blooms and their toxic residues are very real. Waterways are traditional food gathering areas (mahinga kai) and a common source of fish, eels, crayfish (koura) and shellfish. Powerful toxins produced by some algal blooms can contaminate aquatic food resources as well as the water supply, rendering them poisonous to eat.



Viruses are infectious particles that invade every known type of living cell. They redirect the metabolism of living cells to reproduce more virus particles. They more closely resemble crystal masses replicating between and within living cells than invasive organisms. Many viruses coexist with their host for long periods without serious problems. Viral replication inside a cell usually can cause death or disease of that cell. The role of waterways in the dispersal of pathogenic viruses is still obscure. Commonly found in sewage and livestock effluents and capable of surviving in polluted and saline waters for extended periods, traditional sewage treatment systems are not always effective in removing or killing viruses. How viruses are hosted or dispersed in waters is unclear, however, it is known that bacteria carried by waterfowl are common in polluted waters. It is reported that waterfowl and wild ducks are the main reservoirs for flu viruses that recombine with human viruses and cause serious flu epidemics (Raven & Johnson 1992).


Fungi are saprophytes Ė they normally feed on sources of organic nutrient from dead or dying organisms. In this ecological role, micro fungi like moulds and yeasts play an important role in reproducing food for humans, like naturally fermented and yeasted products; breads, beer, wine and cheeses. Some macro fungi like edible mushrooms, puffballs and truffles are highly prized as gourmet delicacies themselves.

There are however, a few significant fungi that are pathogenic and generate significant mycotoxins causing disease, allergies or poisoning through ingestion. Athletesí foot (tinea) and ringworm for example are commonplace fungi with worldwide distribution. Less well known are fungal infections and related diseases that are emerging as serious health problems in watersheds and along waterways where host biota are commonly found.

Red gum fever is not a disease of the mouth. It is an infectious and potentially fatal fungal infection arising from the flowers of the River Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) and related red gum species (E.Blakely, E.tereticornis and E.rudis). Disease and deaths from Cryptococcus neoformans var gattii infections, arising from exposure to the spores of fungi hosted only by the flowers of red gum eucalypts have been recorded wherever these fast growing hardwood timber species are planted around the world (Ellis & Pfeiffer 1990, 1992). Indigenous to Australia, they are planted in warm temperate and sub-tropical zones in many countries for their durable hardwood timber, premium firewood and prized honey.

In Australia there is considerable cultural reluctance to classifying red gum eucalypts as health hazards even though deaths are regularly attributed to them. Further, they are implicated in the debilitating health conditions of Aborigines living along watercourses lined with these trees (Ellis & Pfeiffer 1990). It is worth noting that Aborigines (from south eastern Australia at least), actively maintained traditional knowledge of the health hazards of red gums, including the marsupial koala that lives in them (Hayes & Tane 1993). The koala is a reservoir for the fungal pathogen transmitting it even after the flowering cycle has ceased (Ellis & Pfeiffer 1990).

During site visits in Barmah forest on the River Murray floodplain in 1993, local Cummeragunja tribal teachers demonstrated how they traditionally controlled the invasive red gums and systematically eliminated them from campsites and settled areas. Seasonal firing of re-growth and ring-bark burning of any larger trees, using bark that accumulates at the foot of the tree was a regular event.

But the River Red Gum is a colonial icon of inland Australia. This cultural status prevents effective measures being implemented for controlling its invasive spread of mountain watersheds and river floodplains.


Images of industrial society by painters and poets alike are stark, dark and deadly. Similarly, images of contamination and pollution depict streams and rivers as deathly drains. They are close to the mark for poisonous pollutants are common contaminants.


Increasing dependency by farmers, foresters, councils and conservation agencies, on chemical poisons such as pesticides (herbicides, fungicides etc) and other biocides for controlling natural biota poses serious risks and hazards from contaminated water and food supplies (Watts 1994). The dangers donít stop there. Probably the most serious long term threat pesticides pose is slowly but surely rendering dysfunctional, watershed ecosystems required for supporting life. Symptoms are everywhere evident. Silent spring conditions are now so commonplace in New Zealand forests after pesticide programs that it is no longer denied. Instead, collateral wildlife and environmental damage is defended as if we were waging war on Nature. Sadly we are in the eyes of international delegations of watershed scientists and managers.

Recently the leader of a German parliamentary delegation on a study tour of environmental and conservation programs in New Zealand remarked at the end of the tour, with deep regret and disappointment that "NZ is light years behind".

Toxic Wastes

Toxic wastes from a wide range of indiscriminate industries and other human activities commonly jeopardise watersheds, reservoirs and water supplies. It was not necessary, however it happened.

Point source effluent discharges and overland storm water flows generated from contaminated landscapes and infrastructures works (like roads, railways, ports and pavements) contain heavy metals as well as faecal matter and hydrocarbon contaminants. Urban areas serviced by networks of sewers and storm water drains discharge an alarming range of toxic materials that are often costly to identify and even harder to track back to the source of contamination. Urban streets peppered with dog, cat and bird faeces that accumulate in dry periods, generate storm water effluents not unlike raw sewage.

Diffuse sources of toxic wastes are generated in much the same way however, they are delivered to waterways as overland flows in peak rainfall events. Farmlands operating as livestock agro-industries like feedlot factories, can deliver concentrated slugs of sewage effluents to waterways via overland flows and groundwater accessions. One such event in USA resulted in the deaths of over 100 people from cryptosporidium contaminating the water supply.

Toxic Leachates

The issue of toxic leachates has helped focus attention on important relationships between groundwater, watershed regoliths and riparian habitats. Leachates from contaminated sites, waste landfills and industrial activities have emerged as serious environmental issues in recent decades. Now the subject of major investigations and initiatives, particularly for identifying leachates and their impacts, sustainable waste management and remediation of contaminated sites are new national policies.

In examining the performance of riparian zones and watershed ecosystems, there are other less well known sources of toxic leachates worthy of similar attention. In New Zealand, the phytotoxicity (and ecotoxicity) of specific plants and vegetation communities commonly found in New Zealand riparian zones still awaits investigation. There are a number of common plants of concern, including the poisonous tutu bush (Coriaria sp.) and the carcinogenic bracken fern (Pteridium sp). Members of the Myrtaceae (like eucalypts and ti-trees) produce oils commonly used as antiseptic dressings and industrial biocides. Leachates from their buds, leaves, bark and litter produces "black water" a liquid biocide that depletes oxygen levels in water and poisons its biota (Bunn 1986). While the tannins in the leachates create the black water effect, polyphenols in the leachates are deadly biocides.



Nutrients and Sediments

Nutrients are a diverse and motley collection of waterborne minerals, organic detritus and drainage effluents. Nutrients are the natural habitat and raw energy source for a range of organisms, providing abundant food for organisms to multiply (sometimes to plague proportions). This can result in hazardous events like algal blooms, poisonous waters and toxic shellfish.

Sediment particles mobilised, sorted, distributed and deposited by water processes are characterised as either flood deposits (alluvial) river deposits (fluvial) lake deposits (lacustrine) and swamp deposits (palustrine). Sediments can be contaminated at their source or be contaminated en-route to deposition areas. Either way they become agents for dispersing pathogens, concentrating nutrients and depositing toxic materials.



In countries where the dominant culture and spiritual mythology engender respect for living water, sustainable development of watersheds and floodplains is more natural and normal than legislated and regulated (King 1991, Hillel 1991). The defining characteristic of these cultures is their belief in "living waters" and the natural ability of landscape ecostructures and riparian ecosystems to eternally replenish fresh, clean water.

In countries where the dominant spiritual and cultural framework denies respect for waters living in the landscape, where they are ambivalent or antagonistic to living waters, human settlement invariably leads to polluted waters, degraded streams and dysfunctional watershed ecosystems. In New Zealand and Australia, water is considered a physical resource drained from catchments. By this paradigm, society is obliged to accept that drainage catchments are only able to produce "raw" water unfit for human consumption.

Similarly, maximising water yield from catchments without regard to watershed ecosystems or water quality is fraught with environmental risks and public health hazards. Deforested mountains and eroded watersheds with dysfunctional aquifers usually mean highly amplified flood and drought conditions, major stream instability and unhealthy water.

The living water~raw water dichotomy reflects fundamentally different cultural paradigms. The natural laws philosophies of Plato, Socrates and the Alexandrian universities of ancient Egypt are part of natural law (organic) cosmologies outlined in classics like Platoís Timaeus. They remain a potent part of modern science and technology in fields such as general systems theory, biocybernetics, ecological energetics and landscape ecology. The modern re-emergence of organic systems theory in the pioneering works of L von Bertalanffy and Nobel Prize Winner Ilya Prigogine has once and for all effectively refuted spurious claims that organic systems theory is not credible.

By contrast the "raw water" view favoured by river engineers and water resource scientists reflects the analytic logic of Aristotle and the water industry. By this mechanistic model, nature is a myth and water is merely H2O that in its natural state is inherently "unclean".

The concept of living water is untenable to most physical scientists. Researchers operating on this premise are vilified and denied access to research funding (Schiff 1994). It is commonly recognised that censorship in science arises when conventional paradigms are challenged and established dogmas are under threat.

Historically, culture and mythology have provided far more potent strategies for protecting the health of waterways and the integrity of watersheds. From the Aborigines of Australia and Ainu of Japan to the Amerindians of the Americas, from the Han of China to the Melanesians and Polynesians of the South Pacific, water is considered a living organism intimately integrated with the land. From this perspective to separate land and water is to destroy Nature and deny the possibility of healthy watershed and waterways.

In the circumstances, the critical dilemma facing colonial societies in the South Pacific is how to forge an environmental paradigm and cultural framework that work together for sustainable development of watershed catchments according to the principles of Agenda 21. This is a matter to be resolved democratically through community participation and capacity building, rather than a technical problem for the water industry or scientific research.



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