This week, I went to Wairoa and met people affected by the Waihi dam failure and the huge impact of silt build up on the waterways. This disaster started last year when the Waihi dam behind Wairoa sluice gate broke and tonnes of built-up silt poured into the river. The main damage occurred between November and January, but it took till late March this year to stop the flow of silt.
The cause of the dam collapse would appear to be poor management of the infrastructure, but also terrible land management by forestry companies in the hills behind it. The silt will keep coming and no-one locally has faith that this issue is being addressed.
I met with farmer Sheena Martin whose water pumps were destroyed by the silt. Their farm has been heavily impacted as they have been forced to sell stock. Their expensive water scheme, on which the farm depends in summer, is compromised. Eastland Group, who own the dam, have not paid for this damage.
I met with the Mayor of Wairoa, Craig Little. He wants justice and accountability for his community. He is trying to get the resource consents for the dam from the Hawkes Bay Regional Council. He is trying to understand why Eastland Group has not been prosecuted and why “summer was stolen” from the Wairoa community. The costs should not fall on his people. but right now they are.
Paul Kelly, who is tangata whenua of the lower river, took me up to the Waihi Dam and told me about what the rivers mean to his people. He described the life of a swimming, fishing people who have ancient and intimate connections with these waterways. A large grey tide of silt has covered the river bed.
A water intake that was once 2 metres above the riverbed is now 300 millimetres above it. The build-up of silt has smothered the fish life and the banks. The water coming through the dam is now clean but it’s April and still the people wait for the results of an investigation into this event and some compensation for their losses.
I stayed overnight in Gisborne where the Eastland Group is based. It’s only an hour and half away but people seem to have no idea of the scale of the damage caused by the mismanagement of a small hydroelectric dam that supplies their power, because the catastrophe is happening down in Wairoa.
I have written to the Minister for the Environment asking him to help this community get answers from the Hawkes Bay Regional Council, who should be holding Eastland Group to account. The Greens will keep asking questions because whether the damage is by accident or not, those rivers are not drains. They are the lifeblood of Wairoa.