Glenorchy's gripes won't be watered down

Photo: File
Photo: File
The decision to chlorinate Glenorchy’s water has the potential to be met with wide discontent, writes Adan E. Suazo.

The historic red goods shed on Glenorchy's waterfront treats visitors to a picturesque reminder of the town's past.

Posters with historical facts are proudly displayed on its walls, where the phrase ''Head of the Lake'' is featured prominently in each section, in some cases as often as the name Glenorchy.

That the Head of the Lake appears to be crowned by the majestic Southern Alps seems more than a mere allegory: there is a rich and long-standing relationship between Glenorchy's citizens and their water, that helps to explain, at least partly, why a recent chlorination scheme by the Queenstown-Lakes District Council has come into conflict with the community.

In view of the Havelock North water contamination episode in 2016, the council saw it wise to proceed with a chlorination strategy promptly, unfortunately at the expense of a proper consultation process.

Had such a process taken place, issues such as population density, geography and the relative absence of past health risks in Glenorchy would have perhaps influenced the sense of urgency with which council eventually embraced the chlorination path.

Risk mitigation was clearly at the heart of the decision to chlorinate water, and given the finding of E. coli particles a day after the chlorination decision was made, the establishment of a preventive water strategy in Glenorchy was rendered necessary.

In its attempt to reduce contamination risks, however, a series of important concerns became salient, one of which was the council's inability to identify and prevent conflicts over the water resources under its jurisdiction.

Based on my own conversations with local leaders and community members in Glenorchy, there seems to be a widely-shared value system attached to water. Due to its untampered nature, water in Glenorchy is seen as a source of pride by its citizens, and their ability to interact with it safely has led to the development of unique perspectives on water access, conservation, and care, all of which hinge on the non-intensification of water use.

This value system, however, seems incompatible with how water is valued in Glenorchy's periphery, and elsewhere in the country, where trends of commercialisation and manipulation have already affected the health of New Zealand's waterways and the life they sustain.

The decision to chlorinate Glenorchy's water, whether justified or not, already had the potential of being met with wide discontent by the community, based on the incompatibility of values resulting from such a decision. The lack of consultation with the community's experts only worsened the situation, and the council lost a key opportunity to establish less-invasive prevention strategies that did not conflict with local water values.

It is true that conflicts over water in New Zealand do not take the shape and form of other more violent cases found elsewhere in the world.

But the level of organisation and citizen involvement found in places like Glenorchy bear witness to the extent to which current water practices and trends can disenfranchise communities, and put them at odds with national and regional policy frameworks. Glenorchy is not alone on this issue - the towns of Ashburton and Belfast, and their resistance to the installation of water bottling plants in their communities, are reminders water conflicts in New Zealand have occurred and continue to occur.

To recognise the existence of these types of conflicts also entails establishing a robust enough resource base for their effective resolution, and here lies the challenge for the future.

The voices I was lucky to find in Glenorchy are as strong as the organisational infrastructure behind them. Glenorchy is not a case of hard-headedness and purposeless resistance to change; it is a case of a community whose water values continue to come into conflict with mainstream water commercialisation and manipulation policies, and the individuals and groups who advocate for them. Voices this loud and well organised on the water question should not be met with deaf ears.

-Adan E. Suazo works at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago.

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