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From ownership to stewardship: how Te Ao Māori is changing water management in New Zealand

Growing up next to Tāngonge, a wetland in the far north of New Zealand, has given stormwater engineer Troy Brockbank a lifelong passion for water and a desire to bring a Te Ao Māori (Indigenous Māori worldview) to helping protect it.

Brockbank, who was named the 2018 Water New Zealand (NZ) Young Water Professional of the Year, is one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming Ozwater’19 Young Water Professionals program, sponsored by Jacobs.

His presentation will focus on the changes he has seen during his 12-year career, previously at Stormwater360 and now as a Kaitohutohu Matua Taiao (senior environmental consultant) at WSP Opus in Auckland.

Jacobs Senior Integrated Water Management Consultant Belinda Hatt said Brockbank’s presentation would provide an insight into different approaches to improving water management.

“Troy is sure to spark an interesting discussion about how we can share knowledge and learn from our respective experiences about how to promote stewardship of natural resources, better the way we incorporate Indigenous values and traditional ecological knowledge into water management and planning, and assure that Traditional Owners have a permanent voice in decision making,” Hatt said.

Brockbank said he has seen the country’s approach to water shift as an awareness of Te Ao Māori and kaitiakitanga (stewardship and protection of natural resources) has grown.

“When I first started out, it was all about draining water away from cities as quickly as we could,” he said.

“We were trying to manage the water around us … But it’s not the water that needs to be managed, it’s people.

“I’m seeing a growing focus on changing people’s behaviour and attitudes towards water, and recognising it as something to value, rather than something to be manipulated and controlled.”

NZ 2018 Young Water Professional of the Year Troy Brockbank. Troy Brockbank has seen New Zealand's approach to water shift over the past decade.

Although the idea of kaitiakitanga has been acknowledged in NZ legislation since 1991, when it was included in the Resource Management Act, Brockbank said it is only recently that the concept of promoting stewardship and guardianship of water has taken hold.

He said this has led to a paradigm shift, with water professionals moving away from terms like stormwater, wastewater and drinking water and instead looking at the water cycle as a whole. The industry is also taking into account Indigenous knowledge, and Māori wellbeing and cultural identity when co-designing water systems.

For example, Auckland Council’s vision for water is based on protecting and enhancing Te mauri o te wai, or the life-supporting capacity of water.

This includes: recognising that water is a taonga (treasured resource); working with the natural environment wherever possible; and engaging with Iwi (Indigenous tribes) and the wider community to plan and deliver better water outcomes.

“From a Māori worldview, we see water as the same as people; if one is unhealthy, the other is unhealthy,” Brockbank said.

“In Auckland, they’re really putting water at the centre of everything and recognising the vital relationship between water and people.”

The best of both worlds

As a stormwater engineer, Brockbank is passionate about the potential of water sensitive urban design (WSUD). He said this means moving away from controlling water and instead designing solutions that mimic natural processes.

Although cities around the world are still grappling with how to implement WSUD, Brockbank said it’s not a new phenomenon.

“It’s built on the same principles as Te Ao Māori,” he said.

Troy Brockbank and Beca Water General Manager Clive Rundel. Troy Brockbank and Beca Water General Manager Clive Rundle.

“Even though it might seem new, we’re reverting back to what we used to do. We didn’t have roads and a lot of impervious surfaces, or all the plastics and contaminants we have now, but the WSUD way of thinking about water is quite similar to Indigenous perspectives.”

This Indigenous perspective is something Brockbank aims to get across through his work at WSP, where he holds Te reo Māori (Māori language) lessons and provides guidance on how to approach projects in a culturally sensitive way.

Brockbank describes himself as a bridge between the Māori and engineering worlds, aiming to combine the best of both for the protection of water now and for future generations.

He said there needs to be more Māori participation in the engineering industry, but that everyone, Indigenous or not, should be empowered to embrace Indigenous culture.

“There’s a place for Indigenous knowledge and we can learn a lot from it,” Brockbank said.

“I introduce people to different Māori words and Indigenous values and principles they can bring to their designs, such as Te Aranga principles.

“It’s something I’m really passionate about, bringing a Māori perspective to support people in their work [and] bringing some Indigenous flavour to supplement Western science.”

Want to hear more? Watch Troy Brockbank's presentation at the Ozwater'19 Young Water Professionals program: