Tim Corballis, Lecturer – Science in Society
Over a weekend early in the first trimester of this year, Science in Society staff and masters students took a trip to Lake Ferry and Kohunui Marae in the southern Wairarapa. The focus of the wānanga was ‘freshwater’—the science and culture of it, and of course, given the public debates about the water quality of Aotearoa’s rivers – the politics of it. I suppose we all knew or guessed that water quality was an issue in the South Wairarapa, as it is in many parts of the country. But I don’t think many of us knew quite what kind of landscape, and what kind of history, we were entering.
There it was, in the midst of the dry landscape: water. It was in the Tauherenikau and Ruamahanga rivers and their tributaries as we crossed them, and there sloshing up against the shores of Lake Onoke as we approached Lake Ferry campground for our first night’s stay. In the morning Raihania Tipoki, who was hosting us and had collaborated with our colleague Pauline Harris in organising the wānanga, told us about the area. Here, ‘water quality issues’ are just part of a much longer story, and are written into everything about the landscape. There are the usual problems, of course: dairy farmers tapping groundwater for irrigation; farm runoff polluting streams. Lake Wairarapa is supertrophic—of ‘very poor’ water quality, according to Land Air and Water Aotearoa—and Lake Onoke is not much better.
But, as Raihania explained to us, these issues are only one recent part of a history that goes back to the late 19th Century. Wairarapa Moana, the interconnected area of waterways and wetlands that includes the two lakes, was a much larger single lake prior to that time. It was an aquatic environment central to the material and spiritual lives of local Māori. In 1888, after years of passive resistance by the tangata whenua, the sandbar at the ocean’s edge was dug out and the lake drained to ease the flooding of farmland. The landscape as it exists now—flat pasture framed by the ranges to the east and west—is a creation of that past, a drained and managed environment. If the mouth of the lake weren’t regularly opened again, it would eventually flood back to its historic levels.
We were welcomed onto Kohunui Marae, where we spent the day listening to talks from scientists, local activists and whanau. Hearing about science in that context—on the marae, alongside other ways of talking about water—made it into just one part of that longer, bigger and deeper story, a complicated story about a living thing turned into a resource, drained and polluted and managed.
We had intended this to be a bonding time and an icebreaker for students, and a time to practice thinking about a particular science issue in its social context. It was all those things, but it was more, and left many of us feeling like we now had a lasting connection with that place.