The Geographical Journal

Exploring a relational approach to water management

By Liz Charpleix, University of New England, Australia

The recent election of Labour politician Jacinda Ardern as Aotearoa/New Zealand’s youngest Prime Minister since 1856 has caught the world’s attention, for reasons ranging from the personal to the political. One of the planks in her party’s policy platform is ‘Clean rivers for future generations’, an appropriate goal for a nation that markets itself as ‘100% Pure’ and ‘the home of Middle Earth’. In pursuing this policy, the party has declared that they intend to ‘work with iwi [people who share a common ancestor] to resolve [Waitangi] Treaty water claims in a manner that respects iwi’s mana [authority], and restores the mauri [life force] of our rivers and lakes’ (Labour, nd).

Given that Aotearoa/New Zealand was colonised on the basis of a treaty signed by Māori chiefs and the English Lieutenant-Governor at Waitangi in 1840, a declaration of respect for Māori culture and law by the nation’s ruling government should not need explicit expression today. However, due to the mistranslation of the treaty from English into Māori at the time of signing, the rights and obligations of each party were different in each language. Disputes ensued as a result of the mistranslation and, finally, in 1975, the Waitangi Tribunal was set up to settle such disputes; the declaration by the Labour Party emphasises its support for the corrective process set in train by the tribunal.

One Waitangi Treaty claim that sought to restore respect for an iwi’s mana and a river’s mauri was Wai 167, which resulted in the recognition of the legal personhood of the Whanganui River. The enacting legislation, passed in March 2017, brought to a conclusion more than a century of legal and direct actions by Te Atihaunui-a-Paparangi, the Māori who live along the river and have long disputed the removal of its management and control from their hands by the European colonists (known as Pākehā ). I have described this case, and discussed its contributions to decolonising a legal system shaped within a colonial context, in a paper recently published in The Geographical Journal. Although place-specific, the claim demonstrates the potential for environmental management to be enhanced by drawing upon relational ontologies with less anthropocentric visions than the dominant Western model.

Inherent in the relational ontology of the Māori is the concept that ‘it is not possessions that most count but how we relate to, and respect the mana of each other and the environment’ (Waitangi Tribunal 1999, xix). Throughout their long dispute, Te Atihaunui battled a range of issues that demonstrated the colonisers’ lack of respect for the Māori and the standing held by the river in their culture. These issues predominately stemmed from the treatment of the river as an economic resource by the Pākehā, such as water abstraction for the Tongariro power scheme, damage to in-river fishing structures, and removal of gravel from the river for commercial reasons. Compounding the disrespect is the fact that for the Māori, a river comprises much more than a stream of water: ‘… it include[s] all things related to the river: the tributaries, the land catchment area… the silt once deposited on what is now dry land’ (Waitangi Tribunal 1999, 39). If the river is damaged, then it is not only the water that has lost mauri; the harm seeps into the earth beneath and beyond.

By contrast, Western hierarchical ontologies locate rivers as one thing and land as another, with humans overseeing them all. From this anthropocentric point of view, environmental features are resources to be used in support of, but never as an equal participant in, the human economy. The idea, as demonstrated by the outcome of Wai 167, that a river can be a person in its own right  supports the egalitarian perspective that a river has the right to stand up for its own health. It has the right to demand back its mauri, to expect a restoration of its mana, to require, in conjunction with the iwi that live upon and by it, respect.

Imagine the river and its surrounding environment, including the Māori and other residents and visitors to the river, as an interconnected network, radiating its mauri outwards along pulsing riparian arteries. The end result, which hopefully wouldn’t take another 150 years to achieve, would be much more than clean rivers and lakes. It would be a healthy vibrancy that permeates the entire nation, infusing humans, flora, fauna, air, water and earth alike with a prospect of a positive future.

Feature image caption: Whanganui River at Pipiriki, December 2014 © Liz Charpleix

About the author: Liz Charpleix is PhD candidate at the University of New England, Australia. 



 100% Pure New Zealand nd Home of Middle-Earth ( Accessed 13 November 2017


 Charpleix L 2017 The Whanganui River as Te Awa Tupua: place-based law in a legally pluralistic society The Geographical Journal doi/10.1111/geoj.12238


 Jones A 2017 Jacinda Ardern: ‘Stardust’ ousts experience in New Zealand BBC News October 19 ( Accessed 10 November 2017


 Labour nd Clean rivers for future generations ( Accessed 6 November 2017


 New Zealand Parliament 2017, March 28 Innovative bill protects Whanganui River with legal personhood ( Accessed 10 November 2017


 Waitangi Tribunal 1999 The Whanganui river report: WAI 167 GP Publications, Wellington

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