Why freshwater matters

Water is one of our most precious resources. It is essential to life on earth. Find out why clean water and healthy waterways are so important.

family swimming 1
Family enjoying swimming together

Te Mana o te Wai is the fundamental concept that we use to manage freshwater

Te Mana o te Wai is the fundamental concept that we use to manage freshwater in New Zealand. Our rivers and lakes, and how we care for and use them, are a fundamental part of who we are.

As New Zealanders, we respect the mana of our freshwater – Te Mana o te Wai. Te Mana o te Wai is a concept for all New Zealanders. It refers to the integrated health and wellbeing of waters as a continuum from the mountains to the sea. This means we need to look after the wider environment (like our land and our trees) because these need to be healthy to keep our water healthy. It’s all about having respect and caring for our water.

Te Mana o te Wai establishes a hierarchy of obligations that states that:

  • the first obligation is to protect the health and wellbeing of the water
  • the second obligation is to provide for essential human health needs (such as drinking water)
  • the third obligation is to enable other consumptive use.

This hierarchy signals that all freshwater management discussions should begin with a consideration of the health and wellbeing of the water. To give effect to Te Mana o te Wai, we must be respectful about how much water we take and careful with the types of contaminants that we let go into the water.

When we protect the health of freshwater, the health and wellbeing of the wider environment and communities is ensured.

Why we need to manage freshwater carefully

Our lakes and rivers are feeling the pressure of more than 150 years of a growing population and land-use changes. Water quality has deteriorated in some areas. This is affecting our fish and other aquatic life, drinking water supplies and how we use water for recreation like swimming and fishing.

The demand for freshwater is increasing and there are shortages in some areas at certain times of the year. So we need to manage our freshwater carefully.

Water supports our unique ecosystems

New Zealand is home to all kinds of unique ecosystems containing plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. Many of these ecosystems have freshwater – lakes, rivers, or wetlands – at their heart. Without healthy freshwater environments, many of our unique taonga such as fish, birds, and plants wouldn’t be able to survive.

We can’t live without water to drink and it’s important that the water we drink is clean and safe from things like bacteria that can cause disease. We also use water to clean ourselves, our clothes and our homes.

In New Zealand cities and towns, clean water is pumped straight into our homes. We have systems in place to monitor how safe our water is for drinking, and to manage what happens when there is an increased risk of illness.

Water is at the heart of our culture and identity as New Zealanders

People have important connections to water through their history, experiences and practices that are important to them. Whether it’s the places they used to swim as children, their favourite camping spots, or mountain streams they’ve encountered in national parks, many people have particular rivers or lakes that are meaningful to them.

A particular water body can be important to a person’s sense of identity. From a traditional Māori perspective, people are connected to water and to the whole natural world through whakapapa – a lineage that descends from Ranginui and Papatuanuku down to people and all parts of the environment. Some water bodies have their own specific mauri (life force) that give them their own identity. Often they are thought of as tīpuna (ancestors) that have been with us throughout history.

The names of many of our rivers and lakes reflect the stories passed down through generations about the tīpuna who first discovered them, or events related to water that have influenced the history of an iwi or hapū.

Water provides us with food to eat

Many New Zealanders gather food from our lakes, rivers and wetlands such as fishing for salmon and trout and catching eels and whitebait. Māori have practiced mahinga kai (food gathering) for hundreds of years. Their traditional freshwater food sources include koura (crayfish) and tuna (eels).

It’s important that our rivers and lakes are healthy, so the plants and animals we eat can grow abundantly and are safe for us to eat.


Water helps us make a living

Water is an essential resource for a whole range of industries, both primary (eg, farming and forestry) and others industries including manufacturing, construction, industrial and commercial operations.

A lot of the water used for farming comes straight from rainfall, but in some places water is taken from our rivers, lakes and groundwater to irrigate land.


Water helps keeps our power running

Almost 60 per cent of our energy comes from hydro-electricity. This energy powers our homes and our businesses.

Hydro-electricity is a renewable source of energy. That means it doesn’t rely on taking fossil fuels out of the ground and burning them. This is great for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combatting climate change. However it can put pressure on freshwater environments by affecting the flow of rivers.

Find out more about how hydro-electricity works [Science Learning Hub]

We enjoy water for recreation

When it comes to getting outdoors and enjoying our natural environment, water is hugely important to New Zealanders. Being able to swim in your local river is important. People also use rivers and lakes for other activities like kayaking and recreational fishing.

Even if you don’t get in the water itself, just being around water is enjoyable. Many of our rivers and lakes have parks or reserves next to them, where people can have picnics, camp, or walk their dogs.

It’s not just important to New Zealanders – our reputation as a tourist destination is based on the natural beauty of our landscapes. Many of our lakes and rivers are popular tourist attractions, which is why it’s important to preserve the ‘natural form and character’ of our rivers and lakes – the things that make them beautiful and unique.

Get the latest data about water quality at your local swimming spot [LAWA website]