Water Rights and Te Ao Māori – Aotea Store

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Water Rights and Te Ao Māori

Prior to colonisation Māori had their own effective legal, political and social systems in place to control water, waterways and water bodies. Although such systems varied from iwi-to-iwi, all Māori followed and adhered to the principles of tikanga Māori, when asserting mana, authority or control over water. This is contrary to the statement from the New Zealand government that no one owns water and it is the government who manages and controls water.

Water is a fundamental necessity of life. For Māori, water has its own wairua or spirit and provides a three-dimensional, holistic value. For instance, water provided sustenance, water served to protect peoples when undertaking special tasks, water provided a method to journey from place to place and water was intrinsically connected to, and part of, the wider environment. For iwi such as Whanganui their whakatauki “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au” “I am the river, the river is me” reflects the intrinsic connectedness and metaphysical relationship between the people and the water.

On Aotea, the tikanga associated with the water bodies was manifest in place names,

  • reflecting the battles fought, Waitapu,
  • where activities, such as washing clothes, were to take place, Waikakahu,
  • remembering taniwha, Waituoro, and
  • the position of puna wai.

For instance, the coastal names, on Aotea, were also intrinsic to the wai, for instance Te Punga o Tainui, is a large rock in Katherine Bay. It is a special wahi (place) that was used as an anchor for the Tainui waka. 

All bodies of water, such as a spring (puna wai), wetland (repo), river (awa), lake (roto), underground water (waitomo) or lagoon (muriwai) have their own mauri or life force. The nature of the animals that either lived in the water body or depended on the water body was usually a reflection of its health. The presence of taniwha, spiritual tuna, within the streams in Oruawharo and Te Roto were seen as positive as they kept the streams clean to maintain the health and mauri of the wai.

So important was the need to maintain the health of the water body that any mixing was prohibited and classified as a hee (wrong doing) that was required to be rectified or rebalanced. For instance, water used for washing the body could not be mixed with water used for cooking, subsequently, there was one source for washing the body and one for cooking.

In New Zealand the run off from intensive dairy farms is changing the ecosystem of the waterways, impacting negatively on the life force or mauri of the river. Many of the early claims to the Waitangi Tribunal by Maori were a result of permits that had been granted by the Council to discharge effluent into waterways. On a more positive note the co-management arrangement to clean up the Waikato River and manage this waterway sustainably is welcomed. Additionally, the recognition of the Whanganui River as a legal person is also positive.