Channelling community change

Dugald MacTavish with the online booking system for the shared Hampden electric car. Photo:...
Dugald MacTavish with the online booking system for the shared Hampden electric car. Photo: Maureen Howard
Whether it is swales or community-owned electric vehicles, recent QSM recipient Dugald MacTavish is thinking of the future, writes Maureen Howard.

For a moment, Dugald MacTavish's broad frame teeters precariously above the wire fence he is straddling; then he makes contact with the ground in the next paddock.

It is quite a relief.

The energetic community-minded environmentalist is overdue a hip replacement, but that has been the least of his concerns just lately. When we meet, his lower right arm is freshly encased in an already grubby white plaster cast and his left arm is secured in a hospital sling. Just four days earlier, MacTavish fell out of a lucerne tree when a pruned branch unexpectedly sprang back. He dislocated his shoulder and broke a bone in his thumb that needed an operation to fuse.

But it takes more than three impaired limbs to stop Dugald MacTavish.

A geo-hydrological engineer by education and practice, MacTavish is crossing the terrain of his coastal 13ha property just outside Hampden, in North Otago, to show off his latest reservoir.

In addition to a career in hydrological engineering that included doing all the early groundwater surveys for Otago, MacTavish has contributed in his spare time to his community and the living environment.

In Dunedin and North Otago he was among the key founders of the Dunedin branch of Oxfam Water for Survival, Sustainable Dunedin City, the Hampden Community Energy Society, and the Wise Response Society. He also helped form Waitaki First, that successfully opposed Project Aqua, a hydro-electric scheme proposed for the lower Waitaki River, followed by the Environment Canterbury-sponsored Lower Waitaki River Management Society.

MacTavish's volunteer endeavours were recognised this year in the Queen's Birthday Honours, with a QSM for services to conservation and the environment. Initially reluctant to accept the award, MacTavish is quick to point out that his work has involved team efforts, in particular with his wife Alison.

Prior to settling together in North Otago to rear their two children, Tom and Jinty, MacTavish worked as a consultant overseas for 10 years on water resource projects, based in London. He was posted to many countries, including Indonesia - both Sumatra and Java - Algeria, Egypt and Swaziland.

Many years before his own overseas adventures, his Dunedin-born mother, Shona Dunlop MacTavish, widely regarded as the "mother of modern dance in New Zealand", left her home town with her new husband, the Rev Donald MacTavish, to serve as a missionary, first in China and then Africa. She returned to Dunedin a widow, with 4-year-old Dugald and his two sisters, Terry and Catriona, in tow. There she opened a modern dance school, and put on many performances on themes around social justice issues.

MacTavish did not inherit his mother's flair for dance, but he was strongly influenced by his parents' deep concern for social justice and community.

Dugald MacTavish's latest reservoir sits on the highest feasible point of his farm as part of a...
Dugald MacTavish's latest reservoir sits on the highest feasible point of his farm as part of a swale system designed to conserve and more rainwater about the property. Swales can be seen running across the face of the hill at the back, right of the photograph. Photo: Dugald MacTavish
Not that he is preaching.

"Because you have no formal authority, even when you think the science is clear that change is desperately needed, it's still a difficult thing to try to persuade your fellows without giving the impression you are imposing, being a know-all," MacTavish says.

"I guess it's the environmentalists' perpetual quandary," he adds.

Having negotiated the fence, MacTavish proceeds uphill to his most recent 300sq m reservoir, part of the swale system he has designed to conserve and move rainwater about the property. Dug deep into clay, the reservoir sits on the highest feasible point of the property and is connected to the rest of the farm with swales, as well as an outlet pipe that can be opened to release water to one of three lower reservoirs. Although little significant rain has fallen since Christmas, the reservoirs still hold plenty of water to refill the swales if needed.

As a rainwater harvesting technique that can be used as part of an integrated land management system, the theory behind swales can be traced back to Australian engineer Percival Yeomans, who invented the "Keyline" plan, says MacTavish. Swales in this context comprise horizontal channels dug into inclines, where the excavated earth is deposited on the downhill side to create a berm. Aligned with the horizontal contours of the land, rainwater can flow along a swale in either direction and penetrate the soil.

"The idea is to try to keep water as high as you can on your property and that helps increase infiltration and distribution."

Infiltration can be further increased by combining swales with tree planting close to the tops of ridges, he says.

The more water taken up by the soil, the higher the watertable, which makes more water available to keep rivers flowing through the summer. It is the opposite of the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach. Instead of dams and embankments to control swollen rivers, MacTavish believes there is "massive scope" for landowners on rolling hill country to adopt these on-farm techniques across their shared catchments. In addition to swales, "that might include linking riparian margins the whole length of the river to enhance water quality," he says.

According to the Ministry for the Environment, average rainfall in Otago is expected to increase overall as the climate crisis intensifies, but individual rainfall events will be heavier and potentially less frequent. The science behind this is that as the atmosphere heats, it is capable of holding more moisture before it precipitates as rain.

"Now is the time to get on and think what can we best do to prepare - and there is plenty we can do," MacTavish says.

So far, he has planted some fruit and shelter trees, but his primary motivation in creating the swales is to test them on hilly land.

"It's fairly obvious that swales and heavy animals would not be a good combination without special fencing."

Instead, he believes perennials such as nut trees could make an ideal robust food crop for a low-carbon future, as they absorb carbon and provide protein. Furthermore, tree crops do not require regular tillage, which can lead to soil erosion on slopes. According to the Ministry for Primary Industries, soil erosion is New Zealand's biggest agricultural threat to productivity. Building and stabilising soil with carbon needs to be a priority, MacTavish says.

As well as addressing water issues, MacTavish has been working on reducing the travel footprint of his community.

Hampden is 78km from Dunedin and 33km from Oamaru, and the bus timetable for both destinations is "bloody hopeless!", MacTavish says cheerfully.

In 2017, MacTavish and the Hampden community launched the first community-owned electric car in New Zealand. The purchase of the Nissan Leaf was funded by proceeds from Top Tip, the community's recycling shop and transfer station. The sharing scheme was launched with a charging station installed by Network Waitaki. Other shared items include a trailer, a wood splitter and a honey extractor.

Hampden's own community electric car and charger.
Hampden's own community electric car and charger.
In a finite world with a growing population, it makes good sense to share resources. Especially so for electric vehicles, where most of the environmental costs occur in the manufacturing process rather than in their use, and given that most private vehicles are used for less than 5% of the time.

MacTavish's wife Alison, who looks after the Hampden Library, believes we can learn a lot from sharing systems such as libraries.

"I just think that we already have those systems of sharing in our society. It's just a matter of adapting them for other systems."

But sharing is not just about sharing resources more effectively, it is also about community-building, which happens when people connect.

At the Future Living Dunedin event in July 2018, Alison spoke about the value of "bumping spaces" - public spaces where people can meet and interact. Sharing Hampden's community EV is one such place, MacTavish says.

"The Top Tip is another one. We thought it was just about saving and sharing materials. But you invariably go there and share a yarn. Now we think that's more important."

Some members of the Hampden community car-share scheme car pool to the Oamaru swimming pool every week, and the school has been using it to ferry children, sharing its already low running costs.

Technology is making that easier. The Hampden group recently switched from a manual booking system to an online calendar. Users no longer leave money in the glove box, but pay at the end of the month, or online.

"It's constantly being modified to more self-manage," MacTavish says.

To promote equitable sharing, there are rules around how far ahead the car can be booked, as well as how many times it can be booked by each person within the week. The rules allow for flexibility when demand is low, and there are phone calls among members to negotiate its use.

"We like people to forfeit a second booking if someone else wants it, because we like a maximum number of people to use it," MacTavish says.

Over the past 18 months, the EV has been used by the community almost daily, but in the past month or so there has been a decline. MacTavish says it is too early to say whether it is more than a "temporary blip", but washing and charging the car after use does require some effort.

"And for older people it's quite a thing. You have to be quite committed, compared to jumping in your own petrol vehicle."

The group is still finding its way and trying to make things simpler, says MacTavish.

MacTavish believes the EV-share scheme concept should flourish in a low-carbon future and would work just as well in the suburban setting as it does in a village.

"I think time is on the EV's side. And it just ticks so many important boxes."

Nationally, commercial car-sharing operations such as Cityhop, in Auckland, Mevo, in Wellington, and Yoogo, in Christchurch, are part of the overseas "emerging trend" to shared car ownership. According to a 2017 master's thesis by Lucia Sobieki, from Victoria University of Wellington, there were 4.8million users globally sharing more than 104,000 vehicles in 2014. As well as reducing overall car ownership, the total distances travelled by car are reduced, "which in turn can help decrease congestion, demand for parking and GHG emissions".

While unlikely partners, swales and community-owned electric vehicles are two wise responses to the adaptation and mitigation challenges needed to tackle climate change.

MacTavish is also a founding member and secretary of Wise Response, a Dunedin-based group with a national focus. Launched in 2013 and chaired by Emeritus Prof Sir Alan Mark, its purpose is to persuade government and society to effectively "confront and respond to" issues of growth on a finite planet. They have presented to Parliament, done numerous submissions and held public meetings on topics such as "Tackling the Climate Emergency", "The Future of Food" and "Impacts of Mining".

"I must say he's done a power of work as secretary," Mark says. "I'd say Dugald does 60, 70, 80% of the work that comes out of Wise Response."

When he takes time to relax, MacTavish likes to gaze out at the tui swooping in the native bush that frames his living room window.

"Sometimes I sit here and think, `Oh, so many of my dreams have come true!'. Because none of this bush was here [when we came] and we just planted into gorse."

MacTavish recollects a special childhood holiday to Butterfield Beach on Stewart Island.

"After that my dream was to have native bush around and to look out and see the water. And you know, we are now just so lucky."

Despite the recent death of his mother and his toppling from a tree, MacTavish's balanced outlook and good humour remain unwavering, no doubt uplifted and supported by his family and wider community.

"We've received so much kindness since my mum died, and also since my accident. Perhaps this is what resilient community is all about. It happens while we are busy setting up all these other things."


Add a Comment

Local journalism matters - now more than ever

As the Covid-19 pandemic brings the world into uncharted waters, Otago Daily Times reporters and photographers continue to bring you the stories that matter. For more than 158 years our journalists have provided readers with local news you can trust. This is more important now than ever.

As advertising drops off during the pandemic, support from our readers is crucial. You can help us continue to bring you news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter