I Am The River, The River is Me: Prioritizing Well-being Through Water Policy
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What is the role of rivers and nature in our society? Are they forces to be tamed? Are they resources to be owned and distributed? Or are they part of the tapestry of life, an interconnected fabric? What is the value of rivers and nature in society? Is their value based solely on the benefits we derive from them?
As it turns out, how we answer these questions reveals our cultural values, which in turn determine the kinds of policies and progress that is possible. This is not just theoretical; lives and livelihoods depend on the outcomes that result.
Take, for example, the United States and New Zealand. Two countries that are answering these questions in different ways.
In New Zealand, persistent, concentrated advocacy and legal cases advanced by Māori people are inspiring biocentric policies; that is, those which recognize that people and nature, including living and non-living elements, are part of an interconnected whole. Along the way, tribal leaders and advocates are successfully making the case that nature; whole systems of rivers, lakes, forests, mountains, and more, deserves legal standing to ensure its protection. An early legislative “win” granted personhood status to the Te Urewera forest in 2014, which codified into law these moving lines:
“Te Urewera is ancient and enduring, a fortress of nature, alive with history; its scenery is abundant with mystery, adventure, and remote beauty … Te Urewera has an identity in and of itself, inspiring people to commit to its care.”
The Te Urewera Act of 2014 did more than redefine how a forest would be managed, it pushed forward the practical expression of a new policy paradigm. At the heart of this policy is a principle that says, if we look after nature, nature will look after us. The concept is ageless in a Māori context. But to translate that into modern policy change, Māori culture and narratives had to confront the dominant narratives. And in New Zealand, as in the U.S., dominant policy constructs are largely “anthropocentric” at heart. That is, they are typically either silent about the existence of nature and the consequences of specific human activities on natural processes, or they look upon nature as a set of “resources” to be protected, managed, extracted or otherwise monetized, or developed.
Whereas Te Urewera is a sparsely populated landscape, New Zealand lawmakers have now applied the same principle to an asset that is central to navigation, tourism, commerce, and cultural identity alike: the Te Awa Tupua (or Whanganui) River, the nation’s third largest. More than a century of colonial settlement and industrial hazards, including sediment, sewage and wastewater, mining and industrial waste, and agricultural run-off threaten the river and the life that it sustains. These impacts come much to the distress of the Māori, customary guardians of the river. Guided by the principle that “I am the river, the river is me,” advocates made the case for personhood status for the river as part of the process of redress of these grievances.
The undercurrent of biocentricity and recognition of the relationship between humanity and nature in the Te Urewera Act of 2014 now also flows through the Te Awa Tupua Act of 2017. In both, New Zealand is demonstrating how policies can respect and protect the elements that sustain life. Moreover, they are illuminating how policies can codify cultural narratives—in this case, Māori and public narratives on the intrinsic value of nature and the interdependence between the well-being of people and the planet. As expressed in the Māori language (and reflected in the law), “E rere kau mai te Awa nui, mai i te Kāhui Maunga ki Tangaroa. Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au.” That is: “The Great River flows from the mountains to the sea. I am the River and the River is me.”
Another policy has more recently put New Zealand in the headlines, and springs from a common cultural narrative. In 2019, New Zealand published its first Wellbeing Budget, which includes measures to improve environmental health as well as human health, and emphasizes the interconnection between them. The Wellbeing Budget established a premise that national spending should improve people’s lives. While this concept, too, is intuitive, the shift is nonetheless fundamental. Today’s most ubiquitous measures of progress are rooted in concepts of “economic growth” and “productivity,” the pursuit of which has fostered unsustainable human activities and a focus on short-term shareholder gains rather than generational societal needs. Leaders globally are increasingly calling for new measures of progress that more fully encompass human health and well-being. (For insights into what the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is learning from thought leaders globally, click here.) New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget now serves as an exciting early example for how to do just this.
In the U.S., what are the dominant narratives and stories about nature and water? A recurring theme in the water discourse is Flint, Michigan, where ill-considered water policies have had tragic consequences for residents. In truth, thousands of communities across the country lack access to clean water. The recent DigDeep and US Water Alliance report, which is the focus of this article in the Global Water Equity Article Series, notes that two million people living in the U.S. lack access to indoor plumbing and running water. Some have referred to conditions as akin to those of the “developing world.“ Communities of color, low-income households and marginalized peoples are disproportionately affected. Living on the periphery of cities, not only are many people routinely left behind by municipal and county systems, their despair in the absence of clean water is too often outside of the larger society’s (and leaders’) peripheral vision. The result: Status quo policies in the U.S. that do too little to promote equitable benefits, and too often deepen inequities around clean water and other resources people need to thrive.
What is missing in the U.S.? Narratives and policies that reflect the interconnectedness between people and nature. Instead, U.S. policies place people at the receiving end of nature, rather than as part of that system.
Hope therefore rests with city leaders and innovators to embrace the interconnectedness of people and nature, and to respect and reflect this in policy and practice. As rivers run dry in the U.S. and beyond, even while so many in our communities already struggle to access what clean water there is, we must explore in earnest:
- How can cities promote policy and practice change that takes better care of our rivers (and the vast networks that feed them), so our rivers can better care for us?
- How do we ensure everyone in our communities and nations have access to, and connection with, the clean water necessary to live?
- How can we shape cultural narratives, and amplify those that already exist, to advance policies that better reflect the value of water in our everyday lives?
We encourage city leaders and practitioners everywhere to consider these questions in the context of the region they influence.
For those attending the Meeting of the Minds 2020 Annual Summit, join Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Karabi Acharya on Friday, February 21st at 8:30am to explore ways of putting well-being at the center of decision-making, among which water equity is but one example.
Status quo economic- and consumption-fueled approaches are failing to secure the sustainable future required so that all life may thrive. New Zealand and other countries are embodying new and more expansive ways of defining progress and crafting policies, with the aspiration of advancing well-being for the communities at their heart. May leaders and advocates everywhere be inspired to consider what it would look like to take such approaches in the areas they influence, and what it will take to hasten that shift.
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