The Waipā River restoration project

24 March 2017
Dr Karen Fisher, School of Environment
Dr Karen Fisher, "From the perspective of Manipoto there is a strong desire for the Waipa river to be better than it currently is."

Dr Karen Fisher from the School of Environment, is contributing towards her Iwi’s vision with research that is supported by a Marsden Grant.

As a human geographer, Karen’s interest in society-environment interactions means she travels as far as the Philippines to research sustainable development and environmental management. But, it is back at home in New Zealand that has seen Karen receive $615,000 in funding to work on a project that is very close to her heart.

Alongside colleague Dr Meg Parsons, the two are principal investigators on their project that involves working with Ngāti Maniapoto, local councils and the regional farming community to examine efforts to restore the fresh water management of the Waipā River.

The Waipā River flows from the spring Pekepeke at the foot of Rangitoto mountain through the Waipā valley and along where it unites with the mighty Waikato River at Ngaruawahia.  The Waipā, is says Karen, ’similar to a lot of other rivers around New Zealand’ where there has been a lot of land clearing that results in sediment clogging our rivers, alongside agricultural intensification that pollute our waterways.

For this reason, the two researchers are not only looking at ways of managing the environment in relation to the environmental health of the Waipā, but they are interested in looking at this in relation to a Maori perspective or Kaitiakitanga (stewardship).

“It is important for the project to include different people’s aspirations toward a better river future,” says Karen. “Sustainability isn’t just environmental, it’s the social aspect too and ensuring that all parties have their needs met in some sort of way,” she says.

In 2012 the Ngā Wai o Maniapoto (Waipā River) Act was enacted following the 2010 Deed of Relation to a co-management framework for the Waipā River.  The act formalises the ‘eternal’ relationship of Ngāti Maniapoto with the Waipā River, which means Ngāti Manipoto and the Crown are Treaty partners working together to protect the health and wellbeing of the Waipā River. Since 2009, Karen has been more involved in different sorts of Iwi based hui (meetings) that looked at the management of the Waipā River in relation to the process related to the deed, her current research was born from her involvement with the greater iwi’s decision making that contributed to the bill being passed.

For Ngāti Maniapoto, an important aspect of the on-going enhancement of the Waipā River is the restoration of Waiwaia (essence and well-being of the Waipā River). For Karen as a human geographer and a Ngāti Maniapoto descendant, it is very clear that her dual identity goes hand in hand with the project.

Therefore, Karen is committed to bringing Māori Knowledge and Māori practises such as Kaitiakitanga to promote a ‘just’ and sustainable future for water management. For this reason, Karen and Meg are first looking at the history of the Waipā River, to see 'how we got to where we are' and what that means for the future.

“The continued exclusion of different understandings of freshwater in management approaches is blocking urgently needed progress to address declining river health and enable just and sustainable river futures," says Karen.

Meg and Karen are busy preparing to perform interviews with various stakeholders, local government representatives and Ngati Maniapoto, and organising workshops or hui, to bring the different stakeholders together alongside their in-depth historical analysis of various policies, plans and reports; especially those related to the Nga Rohe Potae Treaty claim (WAI 898) currently before the Waitangi Tribunal.

“It’s been fantastic so far,” says Karen. “We really believe in the project. Nice to have that tick of approval from the Marsden fund. We can support a PhD student and maybe even a Masters student too. It’s a great opportunity to build our careers.”