100% Pure? New Zealand's clean, green image took a beating this summer as tourists travelling through the countryside posted pictures of lakes and rivers off limits due to contamination by farm effluent, garbage and human faeces.
Experts say the water quality of once pristine rivers and lakes has deteriorated. (File photo) Photo: RNZ
A booming dairy farming industry, along with a surge in tourists seeking unspoiled natural attractions, has taken its toll on the country's environment, heavily marketed as '100% Pure'.
Particularly affected is its vast network of once pristine rivers and lakes, which are now some of the most polluted among OECD countries, according to some experts.
About 60 percent of them were unfit for swimming, the Environment Ministry said in a report in 2014. Experts said water quality had deteriorated further since.
In a Colmar Brunton survey conducted last month, 82 percent of respondents said they were "extremely or very" concerned about the pollution of rivers and lakes, more than any other issue including living costs, child poverty and climate change.
"(New Zealanders) are extremely worried that they are losing their ability to swim, fish and gather food from their rivers, lakes and streams," said Martin Taylor, the chief executive of Fish & Game New Zealand, a non-government agency that commissioned the survey.
"People see those activities as their birthright, but over the last 20 years, that right is being lost because the level of pollution in waterways has increased as farming intensifies."
Effluent from dairy farms has been blamed in the past for contaminating waters. Photo: RNZ/ Carol Stiles
More than 13,000 people signed a #toomanycows Greenpeace campaign on Twitter launched last week calling for a ban on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.
"New Zealand already has way too many cows, and synthetic nitrogen is the key driver of the dairy intensification and expansion that leads to the dangerous double whammy of harm to rivers and climate," said Nick Young from Greenpeace.
New Zealand has nearly five million cows, more than its human population of about 4.7 million.
Popular swimming holes near the famed Mt Taranaki in the west of New Zealand's North Island were shut this month due to high E. coli bacteria, an indicator of faecal contamination. Tests are underway to determine the cause, but effluent from nearby dairy farms has been blamed in the past for contaminating these waters.
DairyNZ Chief Executive Tim Mackle said dairy farmers had been doing their bit, with 97 percent of waterways on dairy farms fenced off from cows, and significant work done to establish riparian margins and wetlands.
"The reality is that all types of land use contribute to water quality - and that farming, whether it's vegetables, fruit, beef, sheep, dairy, deer or even wine - must all work together to make sure waterways are protected," Mackle said in a statement.
"The most polluted rivers actually run through urban centres, and this is where the public can do their bit too."
Only about 15 percent of New Zealand's streams run through dairy farms, he added.
Photo: Courtesy of Off The Beaten Track
Dairy and tourism directly contribute about 3.5 percent and 6.1 percent respectively to New Zealand's $200 billion GDP.
Both industries rely on the country's clean, green image with cascading rivers, unspoiled forests and lush pastures that made it the ideal backdrop for the popular Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie series.
The sparsely populated country is spread over a mountainous area about the size of the UK or California, more than a quarter of which is set aside for reserves and national parks.
Hoards of tourists are expected to arrive in the country next month during the Chinese New Year, a peak travel season, which residents feel will take a further toll on the natural environment. Chinese are the second largest source of tourists to New Zealand after neighbouring Australia, according to 2018 data.
Overcrowding in Venice forced the local administration to restrict access to tourists while Boracay was shut down last year, after mass tourism turned the famed Philippines island into a "cesspool".
A freedom camper. Photo: PHOTO NZ
Richard Davies, tourism policy manager at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, said the increase in the number of campers had caused problems in some areas, waste being one of them.
"We have a collective duty to care for our environment and for New Zealand, and there have been a number of initiatives to help educate local and international campers on how to camp responsibility, and funding for infrastructure to help local bodies to address the issues that can arise," he said.
Mike Joy, a senior researcher at Victoria University of Wellington's Institute for Governance and Policy Studies said the environment was paying the price for hands-off governance and the intensification of dairy and tourism industries.
"It's an own goal... they are shooting themselves in the foot. The biggest value add this country can have is its clean, green image and they are just ruining that image," Mr Joy said.
The government has said it was committed to improving water quality. In 2017 it set a national target of making 90 percent of New Zealand's large rivers and lakes swimmable by 2040, with an interim target of 80 percent swimmable by 2030.
Mr Joy, who is a member of some government working groups, said change would only happen if governments took on the powerful dairy and tourism industries.
"Right now, a lot more money is spent on spin and propaganda but there's been very little change."
The Yellow Vest anti-government movement started in France on November 17, when over 300,000 people across France protested a carbon tax on fuel that French President Emmanuel Macron touted as evidence of France's leadership when it comes to mitigating climate change.
The Yellow Vest protests quickly evolved into a general anti-government movement - with hundreds of thousands of angry French citizens taking to the streets for ten straight weeks of mostly peaceful protests marked with pockets of violence, looting and mayhem.
What's more - the movement has gone worldwide - with perhaps the most notable protests outside France taking place in Belgium, where Brussels riot cops have dealt with week after week of protesters blocking oil depot and throwing hard objects at them.
On December 8, Belgians attempted to breach a riot barricade while calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Charles Michel, resulting in around 100 arrests.
And while most of the protests outside of France happened last month, this is a good list to note where discontent is mounting.
Bulgaria: Yellow Vests began protesting the same weekend as the French movement - coming out in force on November 16 to protest in front of parliament and demand the resignation of the government.
Canada: Yellow Vest protests have taken place in more than a dozen cities across Canada - largely campaigning against the carbon price, Canada's participation in the UN's Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the Trudeau administration and other issues.
Croatia: Croatians came out in force on December 15, gathering in Ban Jelacic Square.
Egypt: An Egyptian A lawyer was arrested and jailed for 15 days after he posted a picture of himself wearing a Yellow Vest in support of the French protests.
Finland: Finns came out in force in mid-December as well, gathering in front of Parliament in opposition to the UN's Global Migration pact.
Germany: Marching in solidarity with the French, German Yellow Vests similarly came out against the UN migration pact.
Iraq: Yellow Vests demonstrated in Basra, Iraq on December 5 to protest poor job opportunities among other things. They were reportedly fired upon with live ammunition by police.
Italy: There have been several ongoing Yellow Vest protests in Italy over the last several months, with some protesting the government's hard-line stance against illegal migrants, and other pro-government activists protesting against the EU. In January, Italy's ruling government came out in support of the Yellow Vest movement, which AFP noted was "extremely rare for European leaders to back anti-government protesters in a fellow member state."
Poland: Polish Yellow Vests protested in November and December, blocking the A2 motorway outside of Warsaw, demanding compensation for pigs they were required to slaughter, as well as the import of unlabeled Ukrainian agricultural products.
Portugal: On 21 December 2018, a "Coletes Amarelos" or "Yellow Vest" rally was held under the slogan "Vamos Parar Portugal", roughly translating to "Let's Bring Portugal to a Halt".
Russia: Yellow Vests protested right before Christmas in Moscow's Hyde Park against increased parking fees. "I’m a driver with 20 years of experience, and I can understand that the authorities want to free the city and make it accessible to pedestrians," said resident Tamara Papuashvili, adding " it's just a disgrace. You can use the metro, but there are more and more people there, it just cannot cope."
Serbia: Civil rights organisation "Združena akcija Krov nad glavom" began using yellow vests in its protests to show solidarity with the French protesters, as well as opposition to high fuel prices. Serbians have protested for six weeks in a row.
Taiwan: The Tax and Legal Reform League which has been protesting against high taxes since 2016 organized a yellow vest march on December 19.
Tunisia: A derivative group, the Gilets Rouges (Red Vests), called for protests over the ailing economy.