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Foreign Correspondent



New Zealand: Troubled Waters

28 mins 41 secs






ABC Ultimo Centre

700 Harris Street Ultimo

NSW 2007 Australia


GPO Box 9994


NSW 2001 Australia

Phone: 61 419 231 533









It's a toxic brew of dirty water and big business. And it's jeopardising New Zealand's '100% pure' clean, green image.

New Zealand's pristine landscapes and stunning vistas have made it a magnet for tourists and film directors. Its dairy exports have taken the world by storm.

But behind this success story lies a shocking reality. New Zealand has some of the most polluted rivers in the developed world.

Scientists blame the 'white gold rush' - the rapid expansion of the country's hugely successful dairy industry, worth around $15 billion a year.

In a visually stunning report, correspondent Yaara Bou Melhem travels to the South Island of New Zealand to investigate an issue which is dividing communities.

There she finds rivers contaminated with high levels of nitrogen, run-off from intensive dairy farming practices.
In some cases, this run-off causes toxic algae blooms posing a danger to people and animals. It can make rivers un-swimmable.

"When you have excessive nutrients and sediments coming into the system, these blooms can really take off," says freshwater ecologist and local councillor Lan Pham. "It just fuels this disconnection with the river."

The Ardern government, which was re-elected in a landslide last year, has promised to clean up.

"I want our waterways to be swimmable again," said Ardern in the lead up to last year's election. "We're putting in place standards that...stop the degradation."

The government has introduced limits on the level of nitrates allowed in freshwater but these reforms have left no-one happy. Ecologists warn they've set the level too high and that this could be damaging to life in the rivers.

Many farmers claim the levels are set too low and will destroy the dairy industry.

"We will have a dislocation of thousands upon thousands of people," warns South Island dairy farmer John Sunckell.

"Do we want to get rid of agriculture? It becomes that blunt with the numbers."

New Zealand's wealthiest Maori tribe has stepped into the stalemate. The Ngai Tahu, whose territory spans a huge swathe of the South Island, has filed a landmark high court claim over the freshwater systems in its tribal lands.

"There's been a failure of government, there's been a failure of the market and the only one standing with any credibility on this is the Maori," says the lead claimant in the case, Dr Tau.

It's a huge battle over this most precious natural resource - freshwater - and there's no end in sight.





Aerials. Rivers




YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  New Zealand, Aeoteoroa, is blessed with fresh water.    With its turquoise rivers and lakes and snow-capped mountains.  Its pristine and dramatic landscapes are the sets of Hollywood blockbusters.   And  its natural beauty, a major tourism drawcard. But behind its clean green image is a shocking reality.   Up to 99% of rivers running through urban, farming and non-native forested areas are polluted.  


Lan with Yaara

LAN: We’re told that rivers are dangerous, that you could get sick from rivers, that they could harm your kids and your pets.  


Ardern rivers announcement

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  The Ardern Government has promised to clean up…  

ARDERN: I want our waterways to be swimmable again, so we're putting in place standards that actually stop the degradation.  


Dairy farming GVs

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  …but is facing pushback from one of the country’s biggest polluters - dairy.



JOHN: Do we want agriculture, do we want production or do we want to get rid of agriculture?   


Maori ceremony

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Now the country’s wealthiest Maori tribe is launching an unprecedented claim over the South Island’s fresh water.  


Dr Tau

DR TAU:  There's been a failure of government, there's been a failure of the market, and the only one standing with credibility on this is Maori.


Dart River. Title:
Troubled Waters



Aotearoa New Zealand



Yaara in boat with Bill on river. Super:
Yaara Bou Melham



Dart River GVs

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  I’m on a tour that’s going to take me deep into one of New Zealand’s spectacular wilderness areas – the Dart River in the country’s South Island.   We’re weaving through glacier-fed braided rivers, part of a world heritage site. 



BILL:  The Southern Alps in New Zealand, that's what people think of when they think of New Zealand.  It'll be the snow, the  mountains,  the glaciers, the clean water, the flowing water, the trees, the bush, the bird  life.  The spiritual side of it is that these are where our ancestors were. Some of the mountains are named after our ancestors. 


Bill recites Maori blessing




YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Bill Cook is giving a Maori blessing for the next part of our journey.   



BILL: So basically it's telling you can go away healthy, but make sure you come back to us well as well.   


Bill and Yaara in raft




YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Bill is a cultural river guide who’s been taking people out here for 30 years.






YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  We’re heading to the highlight of the trip – Rockburn Chasm in Mount Aspiring National Park.  


Paddling into chasm




Yaara: "These rock formations are incredible!"  

Bill: "You can imagine the water coming down through there hitting that rock and turning it around like a washing machine and digging in there."  



YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  For Bill, his connection to these rivers runs deep.   



BILL:  Waterways are my life, basically. My grandfather, my father,  my  great  grandparents  were  all  water  people  of  some sort. And  so  we  use  them  as  our  highways,  the  same  as  my  early  ancestors,  the  Maori  came  into  here,  they  were  their  highways.     



YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Waterways are an essential part of his identity.

BILL: Well, Maori saying would be something like…  



[phrase in Maori]…   which is the river. I am the river, the river is me. And so that's basically what we believe in. It's what I believe in personally as well. It means a lot to me. 


Dart River




YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  But in the last few decades this precious natural resource has been degraded.    



Yaara to camera on riverbank

The water here is among the purest in the world, melting from snow off the peaks of the southern alps and glaciers that have taken thousands of years to form.   From here, rivers like this one flow through farms and cities before reaching the sea.   It’s a process that could take anywhere between two and 100 years. But as these flows go further downstream, they’re transforming into some of the most polluted waterways in the developed world.    


Driving to Canterbury




YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  I’m travelling to the Canterbury region in the South Island, which has some of the most contaminated waterways in New Zealand.   


Dairy farms

This was traditionally sheep farming country, but it’s seen an explosion in dairy farming. Cattle numbers have more than doubled here in the last two decades.    It’s now one of the most intensively farmed and irrigated regions.  


Inflating hot air balloon

One of the best ways to get a sense of how the landscape has been transformed by dairy farming is to go up.  


Yaara and Mike in balloon

Joining me for this bird's eye view is Dr Mike Joy, one of New Zealand’s leading freshwater ecologists.  





View of dairy farming from balloon

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  It may look lush and green now, but 20 to 30 years ago it was very different. 

MIKE: Before irrigation, this was brown.  Everywhere was brown. Yeah. It's a  huge change bringing water  to   this place.  



YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Irrigated land has doubled since 2002 and now takes up half of New Zealand’s freshwater use. It’s allowed a major conversion from sheep to dairy farming.

MIKE: This  is  the  most  recently  developed  part  of  New Zealand.  And this  is  where  the  big  land  grab  happened, the big gold rush, you know, intensification of farming  for  conversions,  


Mike interview in balloon

and  that  massive  change  in  the amount  of  water  that  was  taken  out  of  the  rivers  and  aquifers  here  and  put  on  the  land are just   unprecedented,  so  that  more  irrigation  water  here   than  the  whole  rest  of  the  country  put  together.   And  it  happened  really , really quickly. 


View of dairy farming from balloon

The size of farms has got way bigger. The amount of fertiliser going on is hugely increased.

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  And it’s the heavy use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser to grow pasture that is also a major concern for Dr Joy.    With nitrates leaching into the poor soils of the Canterbury Plains and polluting waterways.  


Mike interview in balloon

What sort of effect has that had on the freshwater systems here? 



MIKE: Light stony soils, lots  of  cows  on  it,  a  lot  of  fertiliser  and  palm  kernel  going on to feed them. Lots of urine going out and down through those soils. Into the rivers, the aquifers  and  rivers  really  all   acting  as  one  here, moving out towards the coast and you’re getting the nitrate levels just rising and rising and rising really quickly.  Great for farming, but not so great for fresh water. 


Cows coming in for milking

 YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Back on the ground at this dairy, 600 cows are coming in for their daily milking.


John in milking shed

John Sunckell is a third-generation farmer. Like many in the Canterbury region, he converted from traditional mixed farming to dairy.



JOHN:  It provides a future for my family and the generations that have come before.


John interview

I have five full-time staff on farm. It puts bread on their table and it bolsters and builds communities. 





John and Yaara walk, cows in pasture

John:  "So it's rotational grazing…"

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  John is showing me around his 500 acre property.  In the economic downturn of the late 1980s, dairy became a lifeline. 



When did you turn to more intensive dairy farming here? 

JOHN:  So that was, yeah, early '90s, really. Late '80s, early '90s. 

YAARA: To kind of follow that white gold rush?

JOHN:  Just to follow... Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I didn't see it as a gold rush. You just looked at what you saw in front of you. Sheep prices were no good, wool prices were going down.  We saw an agricultural decline right across the world.



Economically, we just looked at dairying, and dairying seemed to be the future. 


Dairy farm GVs




YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  John’s farm lies within the Selwyn-Waihora catchment.     


Aerial. Selwyn River

And it’s the Selwyn River that has become the poster child for all that’s gone wrong with New Zealand’s waterways.


Yaara walks with Lan along river

LAN:  The Selwyn can be thought of as a bit of a ground zero for mismanagement of water.   

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Local Councillor and Freshwater ecologist Lan Pham is taking me along the river where there’s regular algal blooms, mostly caused by excess nutrients from fertilisers.   



LAN:  There's a  toxic  cyanobacteria  warning  for  this  site.  And  actually,  two  other  sites on  the  Selwyn as  well.  Actually,  this  was  just  a  patch  of  it .   

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Right, so it’s the black stuff on the rocks.  


Algae in water

LAN:  Yeah, so it appears as these kind of quite thick, almost velvety, mats.  



YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  You can’t swim here. This algae is toxic and can harm people and animals who come into contact with it.


Lan shows algae

LAN:  And it just takes one teaspoon for a dog to ingest that for it to actually die.



When you have excessive nutrients and sediments coming into the system, these blooms can really take off. And that's really sort of the perfect storm of what we've got here. And so it really provides essentially a wonderland for forming blooms and they have taken off here this summer as they often do in recent history.

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Which  is  really  unfortunate  in  summer,  because  that's  when  families  want  to  come  to  rivers. 



LAN:  Oh,  it's  hugely  disappointing. It  just fuels this continual disconnection with the river.


Lan social media videos

Lan: "Clean water and swimmable rivers isn’t simply nice to have. Fully functioning fresh water ecosystems are essential to ensure that our communities can thrive, both today and in the future." 



YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  The 34 year old has leveraged social media to campaign hard against the degradation of New Zealand’s rivers.  Her conservation agenda has hit a nerve.   



Lan:  "Pollution can take decades to come to the surface where it impacts our lives." 

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  In 2016 she received the most votes in the Canterbury regional elections and is now in her second term.


Lan and Yaara at river

LAN:  When we're told that rivers are dangerous, that you could get sick from rivers, that they could harm your kids and pets, it just enforces that disconnection with nature. And the idea that we're somehow separate, and that to actually address issues like this and fight for our public resources, or try protect our public resources, that that's somehow unreasonable, because this is the baseline now.  

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Because  a  polluted  river has become the norm?    

LAN:  Exactly.


Aerial. Selwyn River







YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  The Selwyn River is not an isolated case. According to a recent government report 95 to 99 percent of rivers running through urban, farming and non-native forest areas have unacceptable levels of pollution.  That’s nearly 60% of the country’s rivers.


Jacinda Ardern rally

ARDERN: "I want out rivers to be swimmable again."



YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  The poor quality of New Zealand's fresh water was a key issue in last year’s election. With Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern again promising to clean up the country’s dirty water. 



ARDERN: "We’re putting in place standards that actually stop the degradation, will see material improvements over five year, and within a lifetime we'll see our kids swimming in that water again."


Aerials. Polluted rivers

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  To reduce pollution the government has introduced fresh water reforms. The most contentious issue is what the nitrate level in waterways should be. The government set it at 2.4 milligrams per litre, but that’s provoking furious debate.


Mike takes water sample

MIKE:  We can take it back to our analyser and we can get an instant result on the nitrate levels.


Mike, Lan and Yaara walk by river

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Back at the Selwyn River, Dr Mike Joy and Lan Pham are testing the river’s nitrate level.


Mike analyses water sample

MIKE:  The sample's been analysed, and we'll just see what it comes up as. Wow!    9.66 six milligrams that is, that is crazy. The current national policy statement, the limit is 2.4 milligrams. So it’s four times that.  



LAN:  As alarming as this number is, this is totally typical of virtually all the groundwater and surface water systems that you'll get in this whole area.



YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Dr Joy was part of a group of independent scientists set up by the government to advise it on the reforms.    He says the nitrate limit needs to be much lower.



MIKE:  It should be one milligram. The European Union standard is one milligram, it's the maximum that's allowed in fresh waters, that's the trigger for eutrophication.


Algae on river

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Eutrophic waterways are often choked with algae and can change oxygen levels, endangering life. 

MIKE: The farmers put nitrogen fertiliser on the paddocks to grow grass. What the nitrogen does on the river is it grows algae. Algae photosynthesize  during the night, they respire, and the oxygen levels drop



right down and virtually everything dies. And then during the afternoon it comes back up and it gets dangerously high. So those fluctuations are what are really harmful for the life in the river.  



YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  The government says its 2.4 milligram limit will protect 95% of species against toxicity, but Dr Mike Joy says toxicity isn’t the only issue. Freshwater life may have already been harmed from eutrophication.  


Mike with Lan and Yaara

MIKE: The fish can't die twice. They can't die of toxicity if they're already died, because there's not enough oxygen.   


Milk transport/Fonterra




YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  The government's nitrate limit is receiving pushback from one of the country’s most powerful industries. Worth nearly 15 billion dollars a year, dairy is now the country’s biggest export earner.  The dairy co-op Fonterra is New Zealand’s largest company, making around a third of the world’s dairy exports. It wants a higher nitrate limit, a call being echoed by many of its farmers,


John's dairy farm

including John Sunckell.  He’s one of 10,000 Kiwi farmers producing milk for Fonterra.



JOHN:  We apply all our own nitrogen on the farm.


John walks with Yaara

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:   Over the past few years he’s been working hard to reduce his use of fertiliser, but says it will be impossible to meet the government’s nitrate limit.



How  feasible  is  it for  you  to  reach  the  2.4  milligram  per  litre  bottom  line?   



JOHN:  There's nothing that we are doing today, or have an ability to do as far as management and system changes that will allow us to achieve that outcome. 


Irrigation on farm



Canterbury field day



John at field day

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  John is also a councillor for the Canterbury region. Today he’s canvassing the views of other local dairy farmers at this field day.


John addresses field day participants

John:  "Do you think you can continue this work and maintain that improvement and achieve what the government's looking at, at the moment? It's probably a bit of a loaded question."



MAN:  "The targets that are out there are not achievable. We can go lower. Yes we can. We're trying that, but the levels that are proposed are prior to farming in Canterbury. That's the reality."



JOHN:  If  we  cannot  meet  those  numbers,  then  we  cannot  meet  those  numbers, and  we  have  to  give  up  farming.    


Aerial. Canterbury Plains

There is no future for production agriculture of any sort on the Canterbury Plains if that is where we end up.


John interview at field day

We will have a total dislocation of thousands upon thousands of people and no support for the main streets of our small communities. The whole fabric of our communities just disintegrates. It's simple. 



YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  What about others sorts of farming ?    Because what the scientists have been saying is that it's the nitrate leaching into soils that is coming from cow urea that is one of the major issues here. 



JOHN:  Yes, dairying is a significant part of it, but anywhere where we have intensive agriculture and or irrigation. That’s the challenge. There is a societal question – do we want agriculture, do we want production, or do we want to get rid of agriculture? It becomes that blunt with those numbers.


Dairy farm

MIKE:  That's the reality for much of the world, is that the type of industrial farming



that we do at the moment is harming the environment. That's why we have the environmental crisis that we have at the moment, not just of climate change, but a biodiversity crisis, and a soil loss crisis, and a fresh water crisis, globally. So yes, it may be hard for these guys who have grown up with this type of farming to accept that this type of farming can't happen anymore.


Aerial over dairy pasture




YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Under pressure from all sides, the Government has agreed to revisit its nitrate limit later this year. 


Aerial over Bluff

Meanwhile, another battle is breaking out, one that could reset who has authority over the country’s freshwater.


Waitangi Day Maori welcome

It’s Waitangi Day -- New Zealand’s national holiday.   



In Bluff, on the southern tip of the South Island, Ngai Tahu are welcoming people to their Marae. 



Not far from here, about two hundred years ago, the ancestors of these people gathered to sign the country’s founding document with the government - the Treaty of Waitangi.   Ngai Tahu is New Zealand’s wealthiest tribe, its territory spans most of the South Island. 



Frustrated by the degradation of waterways, the tribe has launched an unprecedented legal claim over freshwater in its territory. 



DR TAU:  We claim a kinship with the environment, and it takes a lot of time for people to understand that.  


Dr Tau at Waitangi Day welcome

 YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Dr Te Maire Tau is the lead claimant in the case. He says Ngai Tahu are seeking recognition of rangatiratanga or chieftainship over freshwater. 

DR TAU:  We've made it clear that rangatiratanga 




Dr Tau interview

is more than ownership. This isn't specifically for ownership, this claim to water, it's a claim for rangatiratanga So in a sense, what Maori are claiming and what this tribe is claiming, is authority and autonomy over water. 


Dr Tau at Waitangi Day welcome

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  A Ngai Tahu historian and community leader, Dr Tau says their authority over water is not just enshrined in the treaty but comes from a more spiritual source.  


Dr Tau interview

DR TAU: The stories we have are the canoes and our ancestors, our gods. Our ancestors came here on canoes, as well. So they turned into the mountains and the lakes.   So you won't get a waterway around here that we don't claim descent from.     For Maori, water is an ancestor, what's our obligations to it?  


Te Rau Aroha Marae sign

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  The poor state of the country’s freshwater is dominating the day’s discussions. 


Gabrielle addresses audience

GABRIELLE:  "New Zealand has an image of itself that it is wonderful and green. But underneath the thin facade are filthy waterways…"  

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Gabrielle Huria, the head of the tribe’s freshwater unit says the High Court claim is capturing the public’s imagination.  



GABRIELLE:  And I knew that we had hit on a zeitgeist when I received letters and they would tell us stories of they used to take their son fishing in such and such a river. Now their son can't do it with his muckel because you can't fish in it anymore.  


Ashley River



Yaara and Dr Tau at Ashley River

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Back in Canterbury, Dr Te Maire Tau is taking me to the Ashley River, a place where his family has been fishing for generations. 

DR TAU:  "Our people use to go in January, February, March, whitebaiting.



YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:   He says despite the pollution they continue to practice their traditions.



DR TAU: Ngai Tahu is defined by the environment. It's defined by mahinga kai. There's basic things you need to be doing as a tribal member.  Whitebaiting's  one,  eeling's  another, muttonbirding's another. Getting seafood, those types of things are a basic part of who we are.    Really, you're talking about a community and the destruction of a community. It's just not about fishing. What you really learn when you're young is who your family members are and your relationships, and who the elders are and how you engage with people.



YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter: That's been completely disrupted because of the degradation of the rivers here.   



DR TAU: What I think we've really got are the extinction of our waterways in the South Island. I think it's more than disrupted, degraded, and all those types of words. There's a real threat that the Ashley River will not be a river. It will be a creek.   


Aerials. Rivers

YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  The government say it’s put the Maori concept of Te Mano o Te Wai – or the health of the waterways – at the heart of its freshwater reforms. But Dr Tau says rivers can’t be cleaned up unless the nitrate limit is reduced. 



DR TAU:  How they make decisions on some of these points, I'm really quite surprised on. And then I'm not, because there are political decision that just don't take into account the science of what they've been given, or the advice they've been given 


Aerial. Sunset over dairy farm




YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Our requests to interview the Prime Minister and Environment Minister about the freshwater reforms and the High Court case have been denied. Uncertainty around how the claim will affect dairy farms in the Canterbury region is already concerning John Sunckell.


John interview

JOHN:  Is rangatiratanga about ownership? Is it about control? Is it about joint management and governance? Where does it ultimately sit and where's the end game? So I guess I'm nervous in the interim as to where it might land.    


Birds at river




YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  Lan Pham however, is buoyed by the Ngai Tahu claim.  She hopes it will be the start of a move toward environmental justice for future generations.


Lan walks with family

LAN:  It is about our kids and grandkids. We know that it's just this totally unjust situation where we're leaving them these huge, astronomical issues, not only with freshwater, but climate to address.  


Lan interview

We need to solve this now, and we need to treat it really seriously.





YAARA BOU MELHEM, Reporter:  The Ngai Tahu claim over these waterways will be heard next year. And tribes from the North Island are taking notice, with one already joining the legal battle. Dr Tau says it’s time to let Maori take the lead on New Zealand’s waterways.  


Dr Tau interview

DR TAU:  There’s been a failure of government, there's been a failure of the market, and the only one standing with credibility on this is Maori.


Aerials over river

And we say we have authority, you haven't, you have defaulted your obligations, and that water falls under our rangitiritanga. 


Credits [see below]









Yaara Bou Melhem


Anne Worthington


Tom Bannigan ACS


Stuart Miller


Additional camera
Toby Wilson


Location Services
GFS Risk


Assistant Editor
Tom Carr


Andres Gomez Isaza


Archival Research
Michelle Boukheris


Senior Production Manager
Michelle Roberts


Production Co-ordinator
Victoria Allen


Digital Producer
Matt Henry


Supervising Producer
Lisa McGregor


Executive Producer
Matthew Carney



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