Taken for granted: New Zealand’s looming freshwater crisis

Posted by Cate Macinnis-Ng @LoraxCate

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;Riparian vegetation

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE The Rime of the Ancient Mariner 1798

In his recent contribution to the Infrequently Asked Questions Blog series, the President of The Royal Society of New Zealand Prof Richard Bedford touched on the influence of climate change on migration to New Zealand. He mentioned that the impact of climate change will be more severe in Australia because droughts and heat waves will be more extreme and more widely distributed. While it is true that the projections indicate that climate change impacts will be greater in Australia, New Zealand is ill-prepared for a changing climate and could therefore be equally vulnerable to the impacts of droughts and rising temperatures, even if they are less intense.

As a nation surrounded by water, we take our water resources for granted. Groundwater has been allowed to become contaminated and the quality of our surface freshwaters has continued to decline with excess nutrients causing algal blooms and other problems. Extraction of groundwater for irrigation is intensive in the Canterbury region, particularly during dry periods. Our rivers are dying, our groundwater is dirty and drying up. Prof Bedford points out that droughts will become more frequent and severe in several parts of the country. We already know about the impact this can have on the dairy industry and other agricultural outputs, resulting in economic declines but the impact on native systems is not as clear. We do know that droughts can be a real problem for native fish like mudfish and mast seeding events can be triggered by warmer temperatures, causing population explosions of introduced mammals, leading to declines in native birds. Further details of current knowledge can be found here but in comparison to other countries, the research effort on the ecological and physiological responses of native species to climate change is lacking.

We can’t just assume that because New Zealand has a mild maritime climate, everything will be alright. We need more research on our unique biota and the water culture in New Zealand needs to change urgently before there really is not a drop to drink.

Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng is a Lecturer in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.  She is a plant ecophysiologist and ecohydrologist working on plant-climate interactions. In 2016, Cate will be starting a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship exploring the impact of drought on native forest.

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