A perfect storm

Tony Ward-Holmes raises the alarm about the unprecedented threats facing rivers in New Zealand. This article was originally published in NZ Canoeing 08.2.

Hey there, got 10 minutes? Pour yourself a cuppa… or maybe better… grab a cold one, and let me tell you what's going on down at the river.

Hmm, where to start? How about the other side of the planet, then work our way home. In Scotland a recent government report says there are 1,000 viable hydro schemes that should be developed. "We have ambitions to make Scotland the green energy capital of Europe and hydro is a huge part of our diverse renewables potential". These 1,000 schemes would generate.. wait for it.. 3% of Scotland's electricity. I'm not kidding… That's 3%, not 30%, for damming every last burn, dribble and dram all in the name of renewable energy. Suffice to say you can cross Scotland off your list of favorite Christmas kayaking destinations.

Moving right along now, let's drop in on Greece. There are some classic sections there, but not for much longer. 250 new hydro schemes are permitted or being built and 150 more are under application. A group of kayakers are waging a campaign to save 40 of them. Here in NZ there are 125 classic runs in Graham Charles' guidebook. I'd like to think we can save more than 40 of them, but our work is cut out for us. More about that soon.

Now, let's visit Asia. Home to huge mountains and rivers, incredibly remote wilderness, and also to the world's fastest development. India is in the middle of a programme to add 50,000MW of hydro schemes by 2012, and is kicking off a new programme to add 34,000MW more. That adds up to the equivalent 100 new Manapouri schemes. China of course is adding more than anybody, some of which threaten species habitat, ecosystems, food supply and the economies of unfortunate countries downstream.

Next stop, Tasmania. Great place, it feels very much like the top half of the South Island. Except for the rivers… there is only one major free-flowing river left. The long and bitter fight to save the Franklin attracted global attention and created Australia's green movement. Once you've paddled the Franklin and if it doesn't rain, then courtesy of Hydro Tasmania there is no paddling anywhere. To run the World Cup Slalom, paddlers had to pay Hydro Tasmania $30,000 a day for releases down the natural riverbed of Cataract Gorge. It doesn't stop there. Hydro Tasmania has just been contracted by Network Tasman to investigate the Matakitaki and Glenroy.

Which brings us home to New Zealand. Clean, green, 100% pure, and if you're a kayaker… going down the gurgler. All species live or die by the quality and quantity of their habitat, and kayaker's habitat is New Zealand's rivers. This habitat is under immense threat from development, and there is no national debate on where the balance between development and lifestyle should lie.

Since Project Aqua was cancelled, NZRCA has noticed rapidly increasing pressure to dam a host of smaller and more pristine rivers for hydro power. NZ's economic hydro potential is already 80% developed according to the New Zealand Energy Strategy. Much of the last 20% is all the small projects that nobody ever bothered with before. It's also all much of NZ's whitewater recreational amenity - the habitat for kayakers.

Many factors are conspiring to ratchet up the pressure. Continuing growth in electricity demand, due to growth in both population and consumption, has resulted in demand outstripping secure supply. This growth is by definition unsustainable as it cannot be supplied without negatively impacting future generations. The proposed Kaituna scheme would generate 13MW. If NZ's growth in demand is about 150MW per year… the loss of one of our most cherished and iconic rivers will feed increased growth for… 4 weeks and 4 days. In what universe is that benefit worth the loss? Our whitewater habitat is being consumed by our inability to understand, let alone manage the nature of growth.

NZ has signed the Kyoto Treaty, committing to cut carbon emissions, which means the government is seeking to develop more "renewable" power. To some extent this means hydro-electricity. NZRCA is not against renewable power. NZRCA accepts that if NZ is to meet its emissions targets, all sectors must contribute. There is no strategy to accomplish this in the least damaging fashion however. Which is more environmentally damaging - one big hydro scheme on an already modified catchment, or 20 smaller schemes on smaller, wild and scenic rivers? NZRCA would support a fewer number of larger schemes on already modified catchments. The Waitaki North Bank project or each of the possible large Clutha schemes: Luggate, Queensberry, Beaumont, Tuapeka - could generate as much electricity as a host of world-class kayaking creeks. The ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme) is a further disaster for kayakers. Agriculture produces about half our carbon emissions, yet gets an emissions holiday until 2013. This distorts the market and results in twice the pressure on that part of the market not given a holiday, including electricity generation.

As well as the hydro generation pressures, increasing demand from developing countries for food, and in particular for dairy products is driving intensification of agricultural practices around the country. This results in water being taken from rivers for irrigation, more power required for pumping and food processing, and pollution of lowland streams, lakes and aquifers. To make exploitation of resources easier, the government is being driven to amend relevant legislation; e.g. the RMA and the Conservation Act (which may have a direct impact on the Kaituna and Mokihinui rivers), and set new policy e.g. the Energy Strategy, Emissions Trading and National Environmental Standards. These policies are often dressed up as environmentally friendly, but the reality is they often favour development.

Where are the truly sustainable policies to manage demand? Ecobulbs are a great start, but where is the debate on what we use electricity for? Why do we use precious electricity to heat our water and our poorly insulated houses? Why do we play rugby at night? Should we import bauxite, and heavy oil just so we can provide subsidised electricity to a multi-national corporation to export aluminium ingots in raw form, all the while pumping out massive amounts of carbon dioxide? Where's the 'value-added knowledge-based economy' in that? Manapouri, which supplies Tiwai Point is around 800MW. That's 10 Mokihinuis or over 60 Kaitunas. Is continuing to process a commodity with taxpayer subsidised electricity worth drowning all these river valleys?

All of these factors are combining in a "perfect storm" threatening kayaking and in fact all in-stream recreation. We are staring down the barrel of NZ's whitewater resource being decimated, and the public and Government doesn't seem to know or doesn't care.

What can you do about it?

  1. Think about what you enjoy today and what your children will not ever see.
  2. Support NZRCA by joining a club or joining directly. Only about 10-20% of kayakers currently belong to NZRCA, yet everyone benefits… from releases, water conservation orders, the rivers.org.nz website, safety courses, legislation (i.e. the legislation you don't have to put up with!) and much more.
  3. Get involved in your club's conservation activities. If your club isn't active, make it so.
  4. Get into discussions with your friends and work colleagues. This will test your understanding of the issues and make you a better person.
  5. Write Letters to the Editor, hassle your Council and MPs.
  6. Keep an eye on your patch. Get involved… submit on local schemes and help NZRCA to. Let everyone know whats happening via the Conservation and Access forums on rivers.org.nz.
  7. Make use of releases, many paddlers have fought long and hard for them. Get out there and paddle!