The Issue of Water by Gen de Spa

The Issue of Water by Gen de Spa


How often do you say yes to something, only to find that on approach to the deadline it feels overwhelming and you wish you’d said ‘I’d love to, but maybe next time’…? That’s a little how I’m feeling now as I start to put these words on the page. I was thinking of asking Lillee how much of a let down it would be if I let her down, but then I thought: I don’t need to come up with a topic, everything relates to permaculture in Aotearoa New Zealand! And writing about why things are feeling a tad daunting right now could allow an article to emerge. I can’t guarantee you’ll get a cohesive, rounded-out read, but I’ll do my best to give you a little something to infuse your permie ponderings.

Bear in mind that the truth is that I often feel like a Permaculture Fraud - I can’t grow stuff, I’m hopeless at harvesting anything I do grow and if I do manage to harvest it, it would be pretty unusual for me to actually cook and eat it. Gorgeous permaculture gardening and me are not perfect partners. But I don’t believe that permaculture is all about food, and I know you don’t believe that either. My efforts at permaculture take a different bent. I’ve been keen on permaculturalising economics for years and this week I’m embarking on a very scary social permaculture experiment. On Winter Solstice I will be facilitating an inaugural relationship-building meeting between eight farmers belonging to a Mid Canterbury irrigation scheme whose consent to discharge nitrogen has just been rolled over, and eight representatives from various environmental groups who have been protesting against the rollover of that consent. Arowhenua Environmental Consultants, the governing arm of our local mana whenua have also been invited but with their workload in this regulatory environment being what it is, they are sadly too bogged down in the consenting process themselves to have the will or the capacity to join us.

I have no idea exactly what any of the attendees will be hoping for or expecting and I have little to no experience in facilitating such a meeting. I do, however, have a strong sense that a deep and honest dialogue between all these people could bring something new and unexpected into the mix and I believe this starts with building relatiostart nships. Last night at the Southern Rugby Clubrooms, I observed and interacted with farmers gathering to up a catchment collective. There are no catchment groups in MidCanterbury as yet and the turnout at that meeting was impressive. What really struck me there, as we workshopped out a few strengths and issues in our community, was the disconnect between what I know people in the environmental community are saying and what the farmers are saying. The gap there is enormous. Except that weirdly (it’s as if you’re in some kind of alternate universe) sometimes you hear the two groups say exactly the same thing; such as ‘we are not being heard’, ‘we have no collective voice’ and ‘the government is being held to ransom by extremists’. 

One thing that came up last night in a speech was the similarities between the scale of change we are seeing now with all the new regulations coming down and the changes that happened in the 80s. While commentators may look back now and praise those changes of 30 years ago as being the catalyst that caused farming in Aotearoa to make a huge and necessary leap in efficiency, it can’t be ignored that the speed and the extent of those changes were devastating on rural communities.

It speaks loudly to me: that the water is a leading protagonist, in spite of having no spoken lines. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s like she’s the mute character in a play who either crashes about destroying the set or is conspicuous by her complete absence while everyone around her makes decisions about what’s to be done with her. I’m super conscious of this because since my shift out to Staveley I have, by some strange twist of fate, become entangled with a thing known as a water Zone Committee. These committees were conceived of, just before the Regional Council at ECan were sacked and replaced with commissioners by the National Government in 2010 (full democracy was only reinstated at the last elections) as part of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy.

The idea was for a mixture of diverse voices including runanga, district and regional council and members of the local community to collaborate on how to manage our water ‘resources’. Once the commissioners were installed though, the appointment of the community members could be argued to have been skewed towards business interests and many environmentalists feel that the process was captured from the start, leading to decisions that have ultimately exacerbated the original tensions which caused the fracturing of the Council in the first place. 

New government regulations now are coming down thick and fast, and as we all know, climate chaos is really starting to kick in; Bowyers Stream, which previously shimmied gently a wee distance behind the Staveley Camp Forest and had a habit of calling me to come in and lie down in it (if I wanted to get properly wet), turned into a roaring torrent a couple of weeks ago, snaking its way into a brand new channel 40m closer to the bush, taking out several big trees and masses of other vegetation and unmasking the grass-covered ‘land’ to show its true identity as a far wider than commonly recognised braided river bed. It wasn’t the worst affected property in Mid Canterbury on the weekend of the May 29th flooding by any means. Many farms have been utterly devastated, roads cratered, bridges munted. We’ve never got enough water here, except when we’ve got way, way, way too much.  

In the last four years since I moved to Staveley there have been at least three reasonably major floods right here (this last one being the superflood) and several more in the wider region. There was a major one in December of 2019 which made all of the main highways from Christchurch to Dunedin impassable for some time, and another just last New Year which cut off Oamaru only an hour or two after I had made it out of the ‘The Mix’ New Year festival. These one-in-100 year events, it’s clear, are increasingly ridiculously so-called.


The water issues in MidCanterbury are gargantuan. MidCanterbury is the shared title-holder of the worst water quality in the country in terms of nitrate levels, and water scarcity is also an issue as an abstraction from rivers is severely over-allocated. At the same time, the agricultural industry in our region feeds and clothes pretty much everyone in the area directly or indirectly and obviously earns the country a fair whack of our international income. The reason this region is one of the most productive in the country is because of its water delivery infrastructure and (at least for now) reliable availability. The value of water is abundantly clear to everyone here and cannot be overstated, but like our economic system, we tend to see this ‘resource’ through the lens of scarcity, desperately grabbing as much as we can get and grasping at it as it trickles through our fingers. 

Unlike the economic system though, suddenly stupendous quantities of our ‘scarce resource’ fall from the sky wreaking Kali-like havoc. She’s our mute leading character. And like so many others, this mute character has been another victim of what I believe is at the heart of every single challenge we are facing: The ‘power over’ paradigm which has undeniably achieved incredible feats, but at a cost that is intolerable in any century and cannot possibly contend with the ‘wicked problems’ of the 21st. In the case of water in Canterbury, her nature to rest in great swamps was viewed as a waste of productive land which would be better drained, flattened and farmed for maximum return. 

Upon undertaking my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2015 and learning the principles of ‘spread, slow, sink’ when thinking about water in relationship to land, I became more and more enamoured with wetlands. So for quite a few years, I had been imagining the possibility of the newly flood-unveiled braided Bowyers Stream riverbed being a wetland. It was clear from the 2-3m drop-off encircling this end of the forest that the river had previously cut its mark right there and I longed to see a languid, liquid, lakey space, full of slithery, croaky, buzzing life, which might expediently counter some of the questions we faced about how to manage that land for ‘weeds’. Wetlands, of course, stack multiple functions in one solution. They filter and purify water; sequester carbon; provide flood protection; habitat for biodiversity; mahinga kai; and they fulfil a need for aesthetic beauty… to my eyes anyway.

As I write I can hear our mute character has started gently tapping on the roof of this tiny-house-bus again. To think of her in this way gives us some sense of what this government’s freshwater policy statement is offering us with the imperative to prioritise te mana o te wai. It means that water has an intrinsic right to be treated with respect, that she’s not a resource, she’s a protagonist too and she doesn’t want to be corralled, managed and poisoned. I hope that Western society is slowly coming to recognise that nature isn’t ours to own and control, ‘power over’ is not working. Seeing peoples’ paddocks and homes, livelihoods and lifestyles decimated by the immense and unstoppable power of water, the question that comes up in me is; what might happen if we gave her some of her own power back? The power to manage herself when she falls in abundance, to slow down and sit in the land. Might we paradoxically find ourselves better off when we hand some power back to where it belongs?

When the farmers and the environmentalists come together on Monday, my main stress now is in finding the right questions. There is a myriad of views to be uncovered and I would never assume that my view is ‘right’. This will be a chance for me to play with the skills I’ve learned through the ‘Regenerative Practice’ training offered by The Regenesis Institute (which I highly recommend). Regenerative Practice is a specific discipline rooted in Developmental Change Process, Permaculture and Living Systems Thinking. It came together primarily in the area of architecture and property development projects, but like permaculture, its tools can be used on anything. It gives us frameworks for practising social permaculture and for taking permaculture principles into environments other than growing. Because it works with people, Regenerative Practice pays attention to the energy fields present in human relationships; for example, the inspiration that can be generated through recognising potential and how to then maintain the will and energy required to keep moving toward that potential (particularly as a group). In spite of being a beginner in Regenerative Practice, I hope at this meeting that we will collectively find and feel inspired by a vision of what things might look like when all of New Zealand feels immensely proud of our farmers.

When I was out on someone’s farm a couple of months ago, talking about his operation and getting a sense of his thirst for understanding different ideas, I had a sudden idea to myself for the sowing of permaculture into Aotearoean farms. I could see like a flat/flatmate-finding app, except this would be for tiny housing permies and farmers wanting to know more about permie ways of seeing. The farmer would have a slice of land where a tiny house could perch and a permaculture garden could flourish and would offer that in exchange for home-grown veggies for the farm crew and the flow of ideas for creating systems that lead to increasing states of vitality over time. I believe we are living in a moment in which forces are colliding in such a way that those systems could easily become a reality. Getting farmers and environmentalists in a room together is almost all the proof that you need.



1. I am unable to address the question of environmental weeds from a permaculture perspective in this piece, given time and space constraints, but place the word in inverted commas as a signal that I do not necessarily hold the view of the dominant narrative which conducts a ‘war on weeds’ in the conservation arena. A war on weeds is by definition a war on nature and while I have a strong wish to protect and conserve Aotearoa’s unique and wonderful ecology, I am riddled with internal conflict when it comes to the best strategies for doing that.