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A research project in Wanaka aims to account for cultural values among other, ecological and socio-economic, ones when it comes to freshwater management.

A grant from the European Commission has enabled University of Otago freshwater ecologist Dr Simone Langhans, who is also affiliated with the Basque Centre for Climate Change, to conduct a project called Saber Cultural, which means “knowing culture” in Spanish.

Dr Langhans, from Switzerland but now living in Dunedin, said she would conduct one-on-one interviews in Wanaka over the next few weeks.

These detailed interviews with representatives from stakeholder groups such as farmers, fishermen, tourist operators and developers, among others, would enable her to build an understanding of values that would be quantified and accounted for when developing a freshwater management plan for Lake Wanaka.

“The hypothesis is that human wellbeing will improve if you consider all the cultural values.”

The baseline definition of pristine water changed over time, Dr Langhans said.

People from urban and rural areas might have different perceptions of what a pristine status looked like.

Someone moving to Wanaka today might see the lake as very clean, she said.

“They think it is quite pristine, but if you asked people who had lived there a really long time, they would disagree.

“They would say ‘no, it is not in a pristine state any more’, so that is the shifting baseline I am finding.”

People adapted their internal evaluation according to their experiences, she said.

One way to help understand the shifting baseline could be how Maori cultural narratives described the environment.

“Because these narratives in songs or stories don’t change, they always stay the same.”

Information about environmental conditions could then be compared to understand changes over time.

“These narratives might be a really good way of not losing the baseline.”

Collaboration was key to helping build good freshwater management, she said.

“As soon as you start getting to know people, you listen to them more.”

The aim of her research was to enable communities to build freshwater management strategies that encompassed the “preferences of the people” to benefit the people and the environment concurrently.