Who owns the water?

Headlines, Research — By on May 7, 2013 9:47 am

Who owns the water?

Dr Marama Muru Lanning (BA 2000, MA 2002, PhD 2010) from the University’s Department of Anthropology speaks with Judy Wilford about rights and interests in the Waikato River and their relevance to current issues of crucial national significance.

“I grew up at Türangawaewae Marae on the banks of the Waikato River,” says Dr Marama Muru-Lanning.

“I know about its flooding and currents, its high and low water lines. I know about the safe places for swimming, and the least dangerous places to jump into it from the bridges. I remember the mists and living in fog, days of being cold to the bone. I know the smell of the river. I crossed it every day to get to school.

“The river is my ancestor, my Tupuna Awa.” The Waikato River has also been in recent months at the centre of a legal controversy which has struck to the heart of our national psyche. The legal – and moral – arguments concern the rights of ownership, access and guardianship of the water of this river, and, by extension, of our other New Zealand waterways. It is an issue which has come to the fore through the decision of the present Government to embark upon the partial sales (49 percent) of our state-owned power companies, including Mighty River Power, which generates its electricity from dams on the Waikato River that have until this time been fully state-owned.

It is also an issue that Marama has studied deeply for her PhD and for a book (working title: Tupuna Awa, River Ancestor: The People of the Waikato River) to be published next year by Auckland University Press. When she began her research in 2003 – even when she finished her PhD in 2010 – she had no idea that her scholarly endeavours would have such immediate political relevance.

Her thesis has now become a resource of knowledge for those who need – or wish for – a deeper understanding of the significance of the Waikato River in restoring Waikato Māori status and mana, and of the complexities involved in decision-making around the rights to water. It has shown that the Waikato River lies at the heart of Māori tribal identity and chiefly power and is therefore a key focus of ongoing local struggles for prestige and mana.

The focus of Marama’s thesis was on the three major groups with an interest in and an influence on issues of ownership of the Waikato River: Māori iwi and hapu whose ancestral lands border the river; Mighty River Power; and the Crown. Her study examined the complexity of perspectives within and between those three groups in relation to rights, responsibilities, and “ownership”. She also looked closely at how those perspectives change – and how those changes are reflected in, and very often influenced by, the language used to describe them.

“New terminology was introduced by the new power-brokers of the river,” says Marama. “When you want to change a relationship you create a new term or alter the meaning of an existing term.” A potent example, she says, is “Tupuna Awa”, River Ancestor, a term she grew up with as an essential part of her identity and that of others who belonged to her marae. A newer term that has replaced it in some contexts – notably in discussions leading up to a Deed of Settlement made in 2009 between the Waikato-Tainui iwi and the Crown – is “Te Awa Tupuna”, Ancestral River, which “expresses a different relationship”.

The strength of her study, Marama believes, is that it has clarified some of the ways in which the key stakeholders are defining the river, and has shown that not all Māori along the river have been thinking in the same way. “The Māori groups at each location along the river have their own stories, their own mana; there are differences in what they want and the way they, as kaitiaki and as owners, approached “the Crown”. The term kaitiaki is not defined in the Western way but carries a number of meanings relating to shared ownership, harvesting rights, and rights to use the river for defined purposes at particular times.

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  1. Harry Nichol says:

    Kia ora!
    I enjoyed reading your article in Ingenio this month and I totally support your view that selling off assets dispossesses us now and our mokopuna in the future, and for what? 30 pieces of silver!
    I would be very interested in seeing the video when that is completed.
    Ka kite

  2. Holger Busche says:

    Even in a liberal and private economy driven economy which I would support something that is the base for others to live and cannot be replaced by something else shouldn’t be sold by a public owner. There is just one river at this place so don’t give the power away…

  3. George Lusty says:

    Thanks Marama for doing this very timely research. I still don’t get how the Waikato river can be sold to private interests.
    Kia kaha

  4. Ingenio says:

    We’ve also had responses to the article via email, which we’ve published here:

    Letter from Dr Bonnie Miller Perry
    Letter from Ian George

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