The state of rivers in Aotearoa New Zealand – interview with Catherine Knight

New Zealand’s Rivers: An environmental history sets out to inform current debate about the sustainable use of New Zealand’s fresh water by exploring the history of our often conflicted relationship with our rivers.

Author and environmental historian Catherine Knight says the state of rivers in Aotearoa New Zealand is highly topical and an issue that affects everyone.

Catherine Knight CUP book Rivers w dogWhy is the publication of this book particular timely? What do you think New Zealanders need to take note of this summer?

It is more timely than I had ever imagined when I was writing it. There is a lot happening in respect to rivers and fresh water right now. Also, when I started writing the book, fresh water was more an issue for ‘environmentalists’, but now, because of the Havelock North contamination crisis, it is top of mind for many New Zealanders – people now realise that degraded water can affect them and their families in their homes. What happened in Havelock North has caused people to ‘join the dots’ a lot more I think; between the ongoing pressure on rivers and aquifers (and contamination) in regions like Canterbury, the Ruataniwha Dam proposal, proposals to sell our fresh water to foreign companies for bottling, the ongoing Maori Council freshwater claim, the latest proposal to build a hydro dam on the Waitaha River … and the list goes on.

I hope that when people go to their local swimming hole this summer and find it not as clean or as inviting as it used to be in their childhood, rather than point the finger of blame on farmers, or another easy target, they ask themselves, what can I do about this? It might be writing a blog about it, or talking to the local or regional council, or finding out more about the pressures on the river and sharing that knowledge with the local community… some amazing things have happened around New Zealand in exactly this way – and some of them – eg, Sherry River in Nelson – I have covered in this book.

 You’re UC alumna. What are some examples about your time/experience/ at UC that shaped you as a professional and/or continue to inform your work and thinking today?

 It is impossible to over-emphasise how influential my time at UC was on me. Without my time there, I don’t think I would have written this book or my previous book. Not only did I become aware of the wonderful world of environmental history while I was studying there (entirely tangentially as it turns out), it also made me aware of my own potential as a thinker and as an academic.

I started off doing a third year paper in Chinese. I was working for an electronics company at the time, in a project management role, and I found myself intellectually under-stimulated. So with the university just down the road, I thought I would enrol in a paper. I also took a number of continuing education courses at the university, which I enjoyed very much, and met a number of my close friends that way. Anyway, a professor in the Humanities department took me aside one day and asked, have you thought about doing a Masters? I hadn’t, simply because I thought Masters and Doctorates were only for really clever people, and I wasn’t one of them. The seed was planted though, and I completed my Masters in about 18 months and before it had even been examined, I had started my PhD.

From the time that you lived here (and visited) what is a memory/memories of rivers/creeks/estuaries in and around Christchurch? As ‘locals’ what do you think we might want to have front-of-mind in our own backyard?

I lived on the Heathcote River, in Woolston. I liked Woolston, its no frills, working class, old-style industrial feel.  And the Heathcote very much reflected that as well – ever since Europeans settled in Christchurch, it had been a working river. And for that reason, it was rather the worse for wear. It would smell from the discharges upriver, especially when it was low in the summer. And the Woolston Cut was also another fascinating feature. Very much a hangover from the long period in our history where we thought engineering was the answer to everything; that it could ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ rivers. One thing I loved was running along the Heathcote out to the estuary, and seeing the tiny little crabs disappearing en masse down their little holes when they sensed your footfall even from meters away (presumably through vibrations). Their disappearing act was not always quick enough for the wading birds that fed on them though – obviously they made less vibrations than me!

 New Zealand’s Rivers: An environmental history Canterbury University Press, November 2016. RRP $49.99. ISBN: 978-1-927145-76-0