Over 150 years ago, when European settlement of New Zealand began, we had around 670,000 hectares (ha) of freshwater wetlands. By the 20th Century, this number had significantly reduced to 100,000 ha. Now, the Minister of Conservation is urging that we protect what we have left for our declining kūkūwai (wetlands) as New Zealand clings on to the remaining 10% of wetland area.
“Our wetlands are the land’s kidneys, capturing sediments and nutrients, and slowly releasing water in drought-prone areas. They are home to precious wildlife and plants and are wonderful places for people to experience nature,” Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said in December 2018.
Although they play a vital role in New Zealand’s ecosystem and are of great cultural and spiritual significance to Maori, in many circles wetlands have little-to-no social value and are often referenced as swamps; home to lurking perils.
Unfortunately, the depiction of wetlands hasn’t evolved much and this has resulted in communities distancing themselves from their local wetland areas and the associated smells and risks.
What if we could evolve the narrative…?
Regardless of public perception, wetlands play a significant role in New Zealand.
In their primary state, wetlands create a safe habitat and food source for several native plants, animals and birds. Including endangered species like the mudfish - including the Canterbury kowaro.
Wetlands also play an equally significant role in helping to delay and reduce the impacts that prolonged dry periods can have on our natural water systems.
Liam Foster, WSP Opus Water Sector Leader, believes that it’s time the narrative met the marvels of New Zealand’s wetland areas, by introducing discussions between communities and public sectors.
“This year’s theme for World Wetland Day is Wetlands and Climate Change. Wetlands are our natural buffers against the impacts of changing the climate and natural disasters. A healthy, well-kept wetland acts as a natural sponge, absorbing and storing excess rainfall while reducing the devastating consequences that intense rainfall will have across our urban and rural environments."
However, as sea level rise continues to unfold, valuable coastal wetlands (in the form of salt marshes and mangroves) also become more vulnerable.
"It's imperative that we continue to challenge the continued destruction of our valuable wetland assets. By engaging in community-led approaches, we can help redress the historical decline and deliver improvements to the natural ecosystems that will help drive better water quality and quantity outcomes for the communities to enjoy as well.”
Water Sector Leader - Water Resources and Flood Risk Management and Water & Wastewater Treatment
Liam is a Chartered Environmentalist and Chartered Scientist specialising in sustainable water management, surface water and flood risk management . He has over eighteen years of experience in water cycle and strategic water policy and planning.
Prior to joining WSP Opus in New Zealand, Liam has worked across the Water Environmental and Water Industry within the UK.
He has significant experience in managing storm/surface water and integrated water management studies, and has extensive experience of managing and delivering climate change adaptation services for local planning authorities, the Environment Agency and water companies.
Banner Photo: NZ Geographic