Waimakariri River

Water for grass

Last Saturday, my colleague Eugenie Sage took me for a drive across the Canterbury Plains. I had seen from the air the landuse changes across the plains in recent times; a patchwork of crops and stock raising has been transformed into a green desert. Driving through, the treeless expanses are vast. The paddocks are dominated by giant irrigators crouching like great steel eagles over the artificially green sward. It looks like a landscape on life support complete with pumps and tubes that drip-feed the water from Aoraki rivers into an roofless milk factory. The family farm houses and the shelter belts that studded the plains once, were hard to find.

Central Plains Water has built a huge head race canal to store and carry water from the Rakaia river, and a network of pipes to push it on-farm. Water that sustained life and a healthy river system – the Rakaia’s nationally important salmon fishery, tuna, terns and other braided river birds, kayakers, fishers and jet boaters – has become a barren, lifeless canal marching across the landscape. Not all irrigation is on this vast scale at the expense of the natural landscape – it can be a useful seasonal support system – but the scale of this plains agribusiness is mind-blowing, the vista utterly sterile.

We met with a local water activist who showed us the maps and the plans to extend this from the Rakaia across to the Waimakariri River. The question on all lips was could the dairy farmers afford it given the low prices they are getting from their milk products. The big irrigation modifications rely on higher prices than the new normal we have been seeing, and farmers can’t afford it. Will this save the great braided rivers of a once biodiverse region? Some rivers are now running dry, and aquifers are being bottled and sold for export. The effects of intensive dairying in Canterbury can be measured in nitrate contamination alerts.

The drive with Eugenie also provided me with a new understanding of the Government sacking of the Environment Canterbury councillors. They were sacked so that the continued pillage of this landscape would have no political barriers. For former councillors like Eugenie who had dared to fight for the integrity of rivers; the loss of democracy and biodiversity go hand-in-hand. I now understand something of the political betrayal of this region and the pain of the champions who were stripped of their office. None of the Central Plains Water scheme is pretty, but its expansion is not inevitable; we can challenge Stage 2 of the Central Plains Water scheme and other schemes that will strip the rivers of their natural flows. We can, and we should.

9 Comments Posted

  1. Catherine Delahunty ! you are doing a great job. As the extension on water life animals is increased over a period of time. Its necessary for the humans to save the Mother Nature ( Water is an essential part of it) to provide a sustainable life to their young and coming generations.

  2. 10min edit like on The Standard 2.0 would b nice, but hey, no stress bd, it’s assumed that even politicians make mistakes 😉

    Hye, note a comparison between Canterbury’s negative externalities, and last weeks silt damage report from Catherine. Yes, lots of clever politics from our team… …the corporate body or similar should pay for damage, and that maths makes the agri-corporates bankrupt. I wander if Landcorp could be stabilised and used as a vehicle to take temporary control of Fonterra, in-receivership, till debt and water have cleared. Then return the cooperative back to stakeholders, once it’s clear that the business model must be steady-state and qualitative.

  3. “In almost all rich countries and in most developing countries, the share of national income going to workers has been falling. This means workers are capturing less and less of the gains from growth,” Oxfam said. “In contrast, the owners of capital have seen their capital consistently grow (through interest payments, dividends, or retained profits) faster than the rate the economy has been growing.”

    It’s absolutely true. And there is a very solid (and somewhat sad) reason for it. And the dots join up nicely to other issues that should worry everyone.

    The reason workers are getting less of the pie is that workers are becoming less important and less contributory as time goes on. It is the investment of capital in automation that is responsible for the improvement of productivity in many, many industries. The workers are, at best, innocent bystanders, and at worst, finding themselves unnecessary and thus sacked. This is very different to the situation in the first half of the last century, where automation enabled workers to improve their output. Now it replaces the workers.

    And this is why we should all be worried about a future in which workers are just thrown on the scrapheap. And worse; there are people being born today who will never have a job.

    We have a fairly fucked system here folks, and most ways one looks at it, the outcomes – at all levels of society – are bad. The capital owners can’t continue to become richer if there is no market for their products and services because 50% of the population is unemployed – and worse – uneployable.

  4. Much of the export dollars are balanced against imports of junk, debt and private financial sector dealings including increasing levels of expatriated profits. We are sacrificing not only future climate but our immediate environment for this “free market” squandering of our grand children’s world.

    Dairy is a vehicle travelling to nowhere nice.

    I agree with organic, low impact, local food sources. For those who insist on drinking milk, NZ needs a very small supply for that purpose. Calcium supply with a variety of green vegetables is much superior and more than adequate for human needs.

    The dairy myth is unfortunate.

    Present mobility of goods has allowed a construction of trade and transport monster which is not in our long term interest with terrifying consequences not too far away from realisation.

    The question of human health seems to be largely left out of the mainstream discussion on agriculture.

    The big players who dominate direction are still bankers coupled with media ownership / control, as well as that group, exerting self interest in confining political influence / control. All alive and well in NZ.

    Employment is not a trickle down process and now seems to be a race to the bottom rate of pay / conditions. We are importing labour for many given reasons without much reference to the whole picture of a better deployment of local resources in training and employment tenure.

    Not just an NZ difficulty but authored more widely.

    “In almost all rich countries and in most developing countries, the share of national income going to workers has been falling. This means workers are capturing less and less of the gains from growth,” Oxfam said. “In contrast, the owners of capital have seen their capital consistently grow (through interest payments, dividends, or retained profits) faster than the rate the economy has been growing.”

    The farmers are feeling similar pressure as the banks soak up the fruits of labour, investment of time and capital, while inflating the price of land leaving less management options open to farmers.


  5. I would HOPE there will be signs WARNING tourists that our rivers are TOXIC. Wouldnt want them to get SICK while they visit clean green NZ. What a WEAK farming model.!!!

  6. Totally true and shocking. The most painful is watchin how easy it is to fix, with sustainable and biological farming practices. Now is the hour, they have run out of other options. Good that Ch broke the mrkt. but now capitalise debt, debt right off in a loop back to cooperatives with the skills to pay the biological bills.

  7. When business is in power they do what they like and care not what others think.

    This NACT fiasco spends its efforts on PR, spin and lies as they know the Kiwi is head down and tail up trying to make ends meet.

    Key is on Radio commenting on a multitude of minor matters while the big ones are played out in the back room outside of parliament. The millions spent on irrigation gear is gone but the mortgages will not be so quick to go and may pull down the gambling farmer.

    Increasingly the purchase of large holdings to corporate and transnational interests shows are short term dividends are all that matters.

    No fees are paid for environmental damage and any moves to impose some mitigation is resisted vigorously by NACT and its backers.

    Canterbury was our grain producing area, Grain needs a fraction of the water used by dairy and beef. Grain generally is of lower impact to rivers and has little leach-ate if managed sustainably.

    Peak grain globally was in 1987.

    A hectare of grain produces many more times the amount of nutrients for human consumption than cattle on the same area, and is a much healthier option in every way.

    It is sad our country is being stuffed up in so many directions by large corporations and the investment state supported by NACT.

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