The business of water: A conversation about conservation. Name one thing you enjoy doing and I can guarantee it requires water. No matter your occupation, vocation, lifestyle necessities; everything depends on a clean supply of quality H2O and such a supply, contrary to popular belief, is not everlasting.
It falls from the sky. It collects in pockets underground. Its runs off mountainsides into streams, rivers and lakes. But treating New Zealand’s fresh water as an abundant and endless resource is seeing it become abundantly damaged, and you don’t have to be a greenie to know that a sanitary supply of water is what keeps the country and within that, communities, alive.
Water warrior and Councillor Lan Pham knows what impact letting our freshwater resources degrade further is having on our economies, and on the health of our people.
She gets paid to protect our livelihood, the environment, and she paints a pretty bleak picture for future generations if we don’t get our act together.
To describe Lan Pham as Wonder Woman 2.0 is not even a stretch. Her resume reads something like this: Freshwater ecologist, youngest Environment Canterbury councillor, director of not-for-profit Working Waters Trust, formidable campaigner for the protection and preservation of the environment; and she’s only just getting started.
The Botanical Gardens seemed as fitting setting as any for our interview. Christchurch agreed, turning on a balmy spring day that acted as greater fortification as any to our conversation on conservation and its relationship with the economy.
Despite being a native Wellingtonian, 31-year old Lan Pham, (pronounced ‘Larn’ – it doesn’t rhyme with her surname though I’m sure she won’t mind if you remember it as though it does, if that will keep environmental conservation at the forefront of your mind), is probably more familiar with Canterbury’s freshwater resources than you and I.
She (not so) secretly admits to identifying more with Te Waipounamu (the South Island) than Te Ika-a-Maui (the North Island).
Lan completed a Bachelor of Science in Ecology through Massey University in Palmerston North before beginning her career with the Department of Conservation.
Wanting to sink her teeth in further, beginning with a crusade to expand her practical experience, she moved south to Dunedin and completed her Masters in freshwater ecology. It was through this she learned just how much of a biodiversity hotspot Otago, Canterbury and down towards Southland is for native fish.
In 2013, as a 27yo, post masters, Lan started the Working Waters Trust, which works alongside private land owners in “not only enhancing but celebrating our country’s unique and fascinating freshwater critters and ecosystems”.
WWT has funding from the Department of Conservation, Rata Foundation, Environment Canterbury, WWF New Zealand, Tindall Foundation and others to work on Galaxiid projects throughout Canterbury (Oxford, Tuhaitara Coastal Reserve, St Andrews), Otago (Poolburn, Waihola, Kakanui, Lawrence) and Southland (Pomahaka catchment).
Lan is also involved in the Canterbury Water Management Strategy; a move which was followed by her literal relocation north to Christchurch to handle an increasing number of projects throughout Canterbury.
Canterbury is split into 10 water management zones, each of whom have their own Zone committee who work together with their local committees, and Lan sits on the Orari-Temuka-Opihi-Pareora zone committee.
Again a thirst for varied, practical experience beckoned and Lan escaped to Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, working for DOC but running the science and biodiversity projects for organisations like GNS science, NIWA water testing, and the Scripps Research Institute, a global atmospheric science institute based in California.
Try not to get too jealous, but one of her jobs included going out on the bluff and counting hump back whales for hours, “which was beautiful but actually not very rewarding”.
She realised her boat would return to NZ the week before the regional council elections, so she decided to run for regional council and virtually ran her campaign from the Kermadecs with the help of a team on the ground in CHCH.
Not long after touching down in CHCH Lan was elected to ECan as its youngest and arguably most passionate councillor.
Fresh water, climate change and the economy
The main issues currently affecting our waterways are climate change and, not a lack of awareness, but a lack of understanding of the magnitude of change that is required to achieve environmental improvements.
“As fundamental as biodiversity is to life existence, I’m way more concerned about the fundamentals of ‘Are we going to have safe, clean drinking water in 10, 20 years’ time, are we going to have options for growing our crops when we can no longer rely on synthetic fertilisers produced by fossil fuels?’” Lan says.
“The New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme has been proven internationally to be completely shonky – truly – based on phony Ukrainian carbon credits that have not been proven to have environmental outcomes,” Lan says.
“That’s what our previous Government has been buying and using in our Kyoto Protocol commitments to say that we’re meeting our emissions targets.
“It’s nonsensical. We have failed to recognise that if any economic activity is environmentally unsustainable, it’s already economically unsustainable, and we’re not creating our economies in ways that actually have a longer term vision.
It’s a fallacy that we should make changes solely for the environment: “We should change because it makes good business sense – because it appeals to our customers. That is what true economic sustainability will look like because internationally, our customers want our clean, green products, they want safe food, it’s nothing radical it’s actually the fundamentals of providing for a stable, thriving economy.”
She says the best way people can make an impact – “and gosh they can make an impact”– is to engage with ECan’s long term plan and submit on the long term plan, which comes out for consultation in February 2018, because that sets out everything Environment Canterbury will be working on, and how much money is budgeted and rated for different sections of ECan’s responsibilities.
“In particular, I really want to see us implement a climate change programme of work and focus on achieving a step-change in biodiversity.”
Lan says the Greens were the only party that actually talked about an agricultural transition fund.
“They were the only ones who said, ‘Actually, our agricultural sector is so valuable we needto help them, we need to invest in them so that they can transition, rather than solely hit them with regulations.”
Right now, (speaking before the election results), under the Resource Management Act, regional councils, although charged with managing the region’s recourses, are not actually allowed to mitigate against climate change.
In other words, they can only adapt.
“We can wait for the seas to rise but we’re not actually allowed to reduce our emissions to stop that from happening in the first place.”
They’re allowed to in terms of their own business, for example ensuring their fleet of vehicles is electric, but in terms of taking into account climate change emissions and in granting resource consent, ECan is not currently permitted to do that.
This will only change if central government allows local government to mitigate climate change.
Lan says that thinking of water as an endless resource was never going to get us anywhere. Around the world we’re hitting environmental limits. We thought the environment was boundless but now we have reached environmental limits and we need to face up to that and change our practices accordingly.
“One of our main challenges is understanding the magnitude of change that’s required.”
Nitrate, Canterbury and the future
“None of us are ever doing enough”.
Right now it’s essentially up to communities to decide how polluted any waterway is permitted to be when they set limits as part of the sub regional process in Canterbury – within the bottom lines that National has set in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater.
However, the bottom lines in the NPS are set for things like nitrogen toxicity, which is 6.9mg of nitrogen per litre of water, and what that means is that at that point, 20% of the life in that stream or river has died.
“6.9mg doesn’t sound like much but when you talk about ecosystem health, it’s at the point of 0.4mg that ecosystems start growing excess algae, which can result in dissolved oxygen fluctuations and increase the temperature of the water, which spells disaster for our native aquatic critters,” Lan says.
The majority of NZs waterways are well below that bottom line. However Canterbury is an outlier – with some of our streams and rivers having the highest concentration of nitrogen in the country. Right now 74% of our freshwater fish are endangered.
“The magnitude of change required is so much greater than we’re acknowledging and what concerns me about that is the associated externalities which we are not currently measuring, for example the economic costs of an activity which are borne by society, things like water treatment costs, greenhouse gas emissions, health costs if you get gastro intestinal infections, etcetera.
“If we don’t take into account those costs when we talk about our agricultural economy, we’re masking this huge inter-generational issue that we’re just kicking to touch to future generations to sort out while we think, ‘Haven’t we done well because GDP is growing!’”
“We don’t have a decade or two to sort out these issues. Let’s stop mucking around. Let’s say, ‘This is what’s sustainable, this is where our rivers and lakes need to be, and actually move towards that because we’re making rules at the moment that are kicking the can down the road.
“Zone committees are making plans in collaboration with their communities. We’re setting limits. But again it’s the magnitude of it. This is going to need every single person doing every single thing they can – from reducing stock, installing fencing, reducing nitrogen fertiliser use, its riparian planting, it’s everything.
As Lan so eloquently evidences, we can fill council – city council, regional council, whatever – with incredible people.
“It’s the ultimate opportunity to set the trajectory of how we protect and preserve our precious resources for future generations, and get paid to do it,” she says.
“Narrow-minded economic thinking and pepper pot environmental projects aren’t going to save us, but if we start thinking strategically, and all pull our weight in reducing our impact on the environment, future generations might be able to have the same opportunities that we had – ideally, much, much better.”
By Lydia Truesdale