Public Health South’s retired medical officer of health, Dr Marion Poore, discusses the need for constructive conversations about sustainable uses of water resources in this week’s Protecting our Water series.

Fresh water is vital – both for drinking water and for the ecosystems we rely on for our survival and wellbeing. New Zealand is fortunate to have abundant fresh-water resources.

We value water for cultural reasons; recreational activities and amenity values; as a life-sustaining potable water supply; for economic gain such as agriculture, industry, hydro power; and to sustain our indigenous biodiversity.

Overall, we use around 8% of fresh-water resources for drinking water, 81% for agricultural purposes and 11% for industry. Each of us uses about 227 litres per day for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

Until recently, we have considered water resources in isolation, rather than recognising and valuing the interconnected nature of water, land and people.

We are now experiencing legacy issues around over-extraction of water, and the consequences of intensive agriculture.

Urban expansion requires large water infrastructure projects and significant quantities of water to support expanding communities.

Discharges to water from urban settings include heavy metals, industrial waste, microplastics, pesticides and pharmaceuticals.

In other words, contamination of water from both urban and rural settings affects us all.

Our economic growth model is based on exploiting natural resources but there is a price to pay in the long run which we can’t afford to ignore anymore.

There is a fundamental connection between the health of our environment and the health of communities which becomes clear when we respond to events such as algae blooms in lakes and rivers making recreational water activities unsafe.

Other impacts are toxic paralytic shellfish poisoning in warmer summers, outbreaks of water-borne disease from contaminated drinking water supplies, illness from exposure at contaminated recreational water sites, the stress from drought and flood or arrival of exotic species, which impacts people’s livelihoods.

Science clearly indicates our fresh-water resources are under stress, and that a more holistic and integrated approach is needed. Some community health and wellbeing principles that may be useful include:

Health and wellbeing of our people should take priority in water management decisions.

The health sector has a legislative responsibility to improve, promote and protect the health of people and communities and to reduce adverse social and environmental effects on health.

Work collaboratively with local government and iwi to protect water quality.

All efforts to protect and restore water quality should be supported by the most comprehensive and current scientific evidence. Where evidence is lacking, the principle of prudent avoidance should apply.

Water is of major importance for economic development. While economic wellbeing is necessary for good health, water quality for social, recreational, cultural and environmental reasons is fundamental to health. A sustainable and thriving ecosystem is vital.

collaborative approach is essential to enable communities to address fresh-water quality and quantity issues.

Can we move away from considering water as a commodity and begin much-needed constructive conversations about sustainable uses of water resources?

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