Cautionary tales from the Swimmable Rivers campaign

Every week, I get media alerts about unhealthy water, including algae risks at swimming spots and boil water notices in small towns. It got personal the other week when I went kayaking on a river and found a rash on my arms and legs wherever I had touched the water. The rash formed small itchy blisters, which woke me up at night. It has been a strong reminder that water can look ok but can cause minor or even serious illness.

Kayaking on Lucas Creek - don't touch the water though!
Kayaking on Lucas Creek – don’t touch the water though!

For every person who reports a water-related illness, there can be up to 222 people who may have been sick but did not seek medical help. Good water quality is about so much more than keeping people safe from waterborne illnesses like cryptosporidium and campylobacter; it’s about the clarity of the water, its temperature, and the amount of nutrients that collect in it and cause havoc to the river’s ecosystem. It has been suggested that if you stand in freshwater and cannot see your feet, do not swim. This summer the rivers will be affected by the ongoing impacts of sediment, pathogens and nutrients but also by warming temperatures associated with climate change. Warmer water means more algal blooms, some toxic enough to kill dogs and risk small children’s lives.

It’s not good enough for New Zealanders, who have a heritage of swimming and gathering kai in clean water, to put up with this. That’s why we are campaigning hard for a change to the national goals for clean water based on a robust “swimmable” standard.

Catherine at Selwyn Huts - River algae

Drinking water is also at risk in some places and the causes of the 2016 Havelock North water disaster are still unresolved. We need to act urgently to stop pollution of water sources including rivers and aquifers because these water bodies interact and can affect water supplies in complex ways. The Green Party is actively involved with the Havelock North issues because they caused a great deal of suffering and because we need to learn from them. In 2017, we will continue our Tiakina ngā wai/ Swimmable Rivers campaign and keep pushing for changes that will allow safe swimming in fresh water and ensure safe drinking water for everyone.

This summer, I will be swimming in the cleanest water I can find, which I recognise sadly is a privilege. This privilege is not available to many people – and it’s a disgrace. But next year is election year and clean fresh water is on the agenda when we change the government.

swimmable rivers