Up Close and Personal:

Research demonstrates the importance of face-to-face interactions in achieving consensus on transboundary water management

5 Jul 2024 by The Water Diplomat

A publication in the journal Water International has highlighted the importance of face to face interactions in obtaining consensus among a diverse group of water users in a transboundary water management setting.  According to the author, the research is important in view of the daunting global challenge of meeting the ever-growing demand for fresh water while maintaining healthy environmental standards. Although there is significant media attention for the increasing scarcity of freshwater as well as for declining water quality, there are also abundant examples of effective transboundary water resource agreements throughout the world. In fact, stakeholders who are involved in water management and who are grappling with these issues are in need of examples of how to judiciously manage finite and shared water resources in small and large transboundary basins.

The research from this study indicate that successful water agreements were positively facilitated by face-to-face interactions intentionally pursued during meetings, meals, field trips, and casual interaction by the indigenous Ngāi Tahu communities. The research also indicates that in the case described, this interpersonal aspect has repeatedly enabled stakeholders to break through seemingly intractable obstacles in negotiations.

The research which the paper describes provides an overview of the history, successes, and future challenges of building and maintaining consensus for protecting and sharing freshwater resources in the Canterbury Region on the South Island of Aotearoa–New Zealand. The Cantebury region is located in the Central and Eastern portion of New Zealand’s South Island, covering more than 44,000 km² featuring a mountainous region in the west and grassy plains in the east.

Some 74,000 indigenous Ngāi Tahu still live in the Cantebury region, and they consider the waters of the region to be part of their ancestry which includes sky, wind, water, forest, oceans, and plants, and which is associated with a responsibility of guardianship. However, over time the Ngāi Tahu have lost control over much of their ancestral lands and water bodies.

Over the past decades, there has been a transition from sheep farming to cattle farming, placing pressure on the quality of water resources in the Cantebury region, in particular through high levels of nutrients leaching into surface water and groundwater. In response to concerns raised by the Ngāi Tahu, a study revealed that Environment Cantebury had effectively over permitted in favour of the dairy industry, and found that there was a need to intervene to protect both the water resources of Cantebury - which represents a large proportion of the water resources of the island – as well as tourism.

On the basis of this report, a new  Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) was developed, and a new directive was issued requiring an immediate reduction in nutrients by 25%.  To comply with these requirements, collaborative committees were established which were given the responsibility to create Zone Implementation Plans (ZIPs) in which they would provide solutions to achieve the nutrient limitations within their zones.

In this process, the Ngāi Tahu worked in partnership with administrations at different institutional levels, and they set the condition that in all matters, indigenous knowledge would be respected. This included their preference for face-to-face interactions, decision making by consensus, and the respect for the adherence to certain spiritual practices during the preparation and sharing of food.

From the research it is apparent that the emphasis on the inclusion of the Ngāi Tahu and the adherence to indigenous values has a deep impact on the participants in the water management strategy. The researcher reports that “what began as a water management plan broadened into a deeper cultural paradigm shift”. Ngāi Tahu concepts were respected and adopted s means to  address environmental degradation, and also led to a broader appreciation of indigenous culture throughout government.

Interestingly, this research also places the notion of ‘transboundary’ within the framework of a national water management process. This is quite unique, as in the majority of the concept of ‘transboundary’ is used to describe negotiations and agreements between national governments, i.e. ‘international’ agreements.