In many Southeast Asian countries the ‘Water Festival’ represents an outdoor celebration where people splash one another with water as part of a cleansing ritual to welcome the New Year. Sprinkling water is a sign of respect, blessings and good tidings, and it often also becomes a pretense for celebration! Some believe that at the time of the New Year, everything old must be thrown away or it will bring the owner bad luck. In an ecological sense, our contemporary society must indeed throw out the old way of thinking and embrace a new understanding and appreciation of natural resources like water. This year, a Water Festival was held in Wellington’s scenic suburb of Wainuiomata, a town named for water, or Wai, a reference to the tears of widowed women escaping a historical war and/or to the wet valley nestled in the catchment created by the Rimutaka Mountain Range. I cannot think of a more appropriate place to celebrate H20.
It was the last day of February, and the dry, brown grass, a rare sight in Wellington, was evidence of a recent drought. The town was contemplating putting into effect severe water restrictions, but several barrels had been filled to the brim with the precious liquid so that we might enjoy it while it lasts. Children eagerly filled their water-weapons for an all day water-war with only winners and smiling faces. The only tears came from one man who was so inspired by the love in the air, that in the middle of giving logistical microphone announcements he proposed to his partner, who came running into his arms. The men were gay, in the old sense of the word and the new, and even in this community of low socio-economic standing, famous for it’s hard-hitting rugby players, solely words of support and praise could be heard. The band dedicated their next song to the happy couple, and it was in this spirit of warmth and open friendliness, typical of the Maori people, that the festival was held.
With my colleague, and Vice President of the Society for Conservation Biology at Victoria University, Claudia Hurtado, and the invaluable help of Richard Morgan, a fellow independent educator formerly of Hutt City Council’s ‘Take Action for Water’ program, in addition to the Friends of Baring Head group, represented by Paula Warren, also of DOC, and the dedicated restoration volunteers of Rimutaka Forest Park, we arrived en force to help raise environmental awareness within the community.
It is communities like Wainui, where fishing, swimming and living as part of the semi-urban catchment are part of everyday life, that will be most affected by health issues and the loss of Maui, or life force, associated with the intensifying environmental degradation currently unfolding in New Zealand. Fortunately, there are still politicians, like Tim Barlow of Hutt City Council, among others, who recognize the importance of reversing this trend. They not only invited us along but also provided $200 towards creating an informative display that will be recycled for future events. (I am purposely transparent with stating the amount of money spent, so that anyone can see how little money it takes to make a big difference.) With support from the Society for Conservation Biology, the Island Bay Marine Education Centre, and the Department of Conservation, we were able to create a popular, interactive stall where kids and adults engaged with their catchment and experienced the amazing, fragile and complex living creatures that make this their habitat.
By the end of the day, fifty or so kids and their parents had come around, intrigued by the freshwater invertebrates and by our mascot for the day, Peter the endangered long-finned eel. Peter, whom I had found under a rock in the Wainui River that morning, is a representative of the marine and freshwater Taonga, or treasures, that are less appreciated by the general public and government alike, despite their ecological and cultural importance. An average New Zealander could not even imagine the commercial export of an endangered bird like the Kereru, a widely hunted forest pigeon, to Europe, but there remains a significant export market for the long-finned eel.
While many of the kids already knew of neighborhood eels that they recognized as familiar friends, they were clearly impressed with the opportunity to have a closer reflection on Peter’s colour, body parts, feel, and ecological needs. On the other hand, the average adult comment for the day was “he would look better in a smoker.” Other adults recounted recent fishing ventures, where some even killed large, and hence very old, eels indiscriminately. So I ask, “what has become of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the Maori community and of the wise, sustainable practices that once were customary? What has become of the days when eels were common in Black Creek and in the Wainui River? Why also is the Wainui River-bed covered in thick, filamentous algae and brown algal scum where, anecdotally, it was once clean and clear?” In summary, “why are we willing to celebrate Wai, or water, but not to protect it and the Mauri, or life force, that it possesses?”
When my colleague for the day, Richard, was a kid growing up in NZ, he would help his father, who was a member of the one hundred and fifty year old Acclimatization Societies, groups of people dedicated to promoting the success of introduced species like the brown trout (TeAra), namely by systematically killing and removing native eels. Today, Richard dedicates much of his free time to educating people about the eels and to protecting them, possibly to restore his Karma as a Kaitiaki, or steward of his landscape.
Richard’s life experience shows that many New Zealanders have come a long way in understanding and caring for native habitats, and the many species they are host to, but NZ still has a long way to go. We need to help the next generation become empowered and live-into their Mana, or authority and guardianship, so that they actively take part in ecological restoration. The next generation will also be responsible for actively designating leaders that will act in their best interest and analogously, in the best interest of the environment. This work will require lots of keen and interested individuals like you, who took the time to read this blog entry, so thank you for your time and please stay interested in the future of NZ’s freshwater resources!
(P.S. I returned Peter to his native stream at the end of the day and he was chuffed)