Auditor-General's overview

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangarangatanga maha o te motu, tēnā koutou.

Freshwater is one of New Zealand's most important natural resources. The quality of the water that flows through our lakes and rivers affects the lives and livelihoods of all New Zealanders. Changes to the way we use and manage land have affected many of our waterways, and climate change is putting further pressure on our freshwater ecosystems.

Improving how we manage freshwater quality in New Zealand is important work. It is particularly important for regional councils, who are responsible for managing freshwater quality in their regions.

Regional councils have statutory obligations to involve iwi and hapū in managing freshwater resources through the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, the Resource Management Act 1991, Treaty settlements and other legislation. Many iwi also exercise kaitiakitanga over freshwater in their rohe.

Regional councils need meaningful relationships with iwi and hapū because of the deep cultural and traditional connections that tangata whenua have with water bodies and water. These relationships can help regional councils better understand the values and aspirations that iwi and hapū have for freshwater management.

In 2019, we looked at how effectively Waikato Regional Council, Taranaki Regional Council, Horizons Regional Council, and Environment Southland were managing freshwater quality. We recommended that, to manage freshwater quality better, three of these regional councils (Waikato, Taranaki, and Horizons) strengthen their relationships with iwi and hapū in their regions. In 2023, we followed up with all four regional councils and spoke with iwi and hapū representatives to see what progress the regional councils had made.

We found that all four regional councils are focused on strengthening their relationships with iwi and hapū. We saw improvements in how they work with iwi and hapū to manage freshwater quality, and they all now involve tangata whenua in governance structures that oversee regional freshwater management.

However, we heard from iwi and hapū representatives that they want more enduring and meaningful relationships with regional councils. Some iwi and hapū still feel that regional councils tend to engage with them only on specific projects and focus only on what the councils want to prioritise.

At times this can lead to regional councils not taking the time to understand iwi perspectives on the different waterways in their rohe, or engaging with the wrong people.

Meaningful relationships that will endure, even when circumstances change or challenges arise, require a more strategic approach. A strategic approach should focus on shared long-term goals for freshwater management; a common understanding of each other's interests in, and concerns for, freshwater; appropriate structures for councils to hear and respond to iwi and hapū voices; and effective processes for sharing information. Working with iwi and hapū in this way should be a core capability for councils, as it is critical to good environmental planning, and a range of other responsibilities regional councils have.

A strategic approach will assist councils to better prioritise and manage freshwater projects in ways that benefit everyone, adapt processes to ensure they work for all those involved, avoid engagements feeling transactional, and sustain and strengthen relationships.

The four regional councils we looked at all intend to continue to improve relationships and involve iwi and hapū in freshwater management and policy. Iwi and hapū representatives we spoke with recognised this. I encourage all councils to consider how they can learn from the observations in this report and the approaches that different councils have taken to working more effectively with iwi and hapū to manage freshwater quality.

I thank the staff of the four regional councils and the iwi and hapū representatives who volunteered their time and expertise to support this work. My Office will continue to have an interest in how regional councils are working to build meaningful and enduring relationships with iwi and hapū in their regions.

Nāku noa, nā

John Ryan
Controller and Auditor-General | Tumuaki o te Mana Arotake

10 May 2024