Planning needed to protect health of land, water, and people

A good land and water plan for Otago is vital, Alex Macmillan writes.

Otago needs a future-proofed Land and Water Regional Plan that gives certainty to our communities and puts us on a path our collective work contributes to restoring the health of the region’s land and water.

And as someone who works in public health, there is nothing more certain than that people’s own health and wellbeing is intertwined with the health of the land, air, water, and climate.

What healthy means for Otago doesn’t change with changes of government, and nor does the urgency with which action is needed. We need our council to stay the course agreed, providing the good governance that will support and guide our region and communities to achieve healthy land and water over the coming years.

Healthy landscapes filter our drinking water, making it safer and better quality. They sequester more carbon, contributing to a more stable climate. They provide places for us to enjoy the gathering of wild foods, swimming and connection with nature. Rivers are not only good for our physical health but also our mental, cultural and spiritual wellbeing and quality of life.

Healthy landscapes have thriving biodiversity, good quality freshwater, and stable, drought-resistant land, interspersed with healthy wetlands and native planting. Healthy landscapes include both wild and cultivated food and fibre systems that are the right fit for the land and water context. Healthy landscapes make room for rivers to move so that people’s homes and lives are not at risk if they flood. Healthy catchments include healthy estuaries and coastlines. Problems are not left to wash downstream; they are addressed at their source.

In Otago, we know this is not the case at the moment. Our upstream problems are obvious downstream, where 70% of monitored estuary sites show high or very high levels of nutrient pollution. Over decades, we have modified the landscape and allowed farming and urban systems to degrade the health of the land and water. But it is possible and necessary to do the opposite; adjust our man-made systems (because we can control how they work) to restore the health of natural systems.

There is no silver bullet for healthy land and water. No one thing we do can quickly restore the health of land and water. As everyone who has been involved in planting stream banks, trapping rats and possums, restoring wetlands, or helping with weed control knows, restoring natural systems like catchments requires thousands of small actions and good decisions all pushing in the same direction, contributing to the same goals and vision.

This requires a long-term plan and good governance by councils. A plan puts everyone on the same page, working in the same direction rather than pulling in opposite directions or, worse, undermining progress and continue to degrade the environment we rely on for our health.

Without a plan from council, without a clear vision and well-defined steps to get there, the health of Otago’s environment will inevitably get worse. As the saying goes, those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

Having done the legwork to develop a plan, the idea that Otago would wait for a new national freshwater policy to be developed is unjustifiable. Waiting three years could only seem right if you are imagining that we can continue to degrade the environment with no consequences. This is not a responsible position.

At times like those, the value of protecting the sources of our drinking water, or the value of a stable landscape with the right land uses in the right places, is starkly clear.

But good planning and governance does not wait for those sudden or dramatic events. It seeks instead to anticipate, plan, and implement to prevent harm and support health. Good governance recognises that the slow degradation of our natural environment undermines us all, and that slow degradation can create invisible risks that are invisible until they are exposed by extreme events, which are becoming more common, and more severe with climate change.

Confirming our land and water plan this year means we genuinely plan to do the work needed.

Waiting three more years for a plan is simply planning to let things get worse. If health and wellbeing are the goals, then we need to hold firm and act now with a clear plan.

 - Alex Macmillan is an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Otago.