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How Wellington is empowering local communities for water management

From the mountains to the sea, New Zealand’s estimated 4,200 catchments are battling challenges brought about by agricultural growth, deforestation, an increasing population, and urban development.

Despite the common issues they face — contamination, nitrogen leaching, sediment run-off, and sewage overflow, among others — each catchment is different and needs a custom-built solution to restore its health, improve its quality, and ensure enough water supply for future generations.

This tailored approach is the driving force behind the Greater Wellington Region’s whaitua committees.

Instead of relying on a one-size-fits-all policy for the entire region, the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) decided on a more collaborative model.

“It’s a mix of us wanting to do things more on a catchment scale and also to involve communities in decision-making,” says Alastair Smaill, program leader for urban water management at GWRC and the past program manager for whaitua committees.

Deriving its name from the Māori word for designated area or space, a whaitua committee is tasked with recommending ways to improve and maintain the quality of freshwater in its catchment.

The committee consists of representatives from the GWRC, the iwi (Māori word for tribe), the local council, and the local community.

To develop a vision that’s unique to their catchment, committees need to understand how their communities use and value water, what their problems are, and how they want to solve these issues.

“It’s about gathering an understanding of what community values are and then looking at decisions through that lens of community values,” Smaill says.

The information gathered is then combined with scientific and economic data and presented to the community.

Once people are happy with this vision, the committee works with the GWRC’s Natural Resources Plan Committee to figure out how to make that vision a reality.

The result is a Whaitua Implementation Programme (WIP) outlining objectives, policies, and rules for water management in the catchment.

Regulatory recommendations in the WIP are included in the regional plan that sets a direction for the catchment and guides future development.

Meanwhile, non-regulatory recommendations such as education programmes will be implemented together with the community and other relevant organisations.

The Greater Wellington Region is currently split into five whaitua, with a committee for each catchment.

The completed WIP of the first established committee, Ruamāhanga Whaitua, was accepted by the GWRC in August 2018.

The second committee, Te Awarua-o-Porirua Whaitua, is expected to finish their WIP by 2019.

The third committee, Whaitua te Whanganui-a-Tara, was established in November 2018, while the last two committees, the Kāpiti Coast Whaitua and Wairarapa Coast Whaitua, have yet to be established.

Whaitua committees are not without their challenges, two of which are deciding on a particular committee structure and selecting the right people as committee members, according to Smaill.

He also notes the difficulty of reaching a consensus, particularly when there are diverse interests at the table.

“But the biggest challenge is probably still to come, and that’s actually implementing the programs,” he says. “The implementation within the community is where change actually happens.”

The whaitua committees’ integrated, local-level approach to water management empowers communities to decide what’s best for their water resources and enables them to set their own standards.

“It’s the communities that actually have to make the change, so they should be involved in making decisions that directly affect them,” Smaill says.

“And when communities are involved in decision-making, they’re much more likely to make change and own the decision.”


About the author: Rina Diane Caballar writes as a correspondent for the International WaterCentre, charged with exploring water challenges and the ways these challenges are managed around the world.

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