Dan Hikuroa on listening for the Voice of the River

Over the next few weeks, in the lead-up to global climate conference COP23 in Bonn, we’re featuring articles that highlight grassroots environmental activism. First off the mark is an essay by Dr Daniel Hikuroa, an earth systems scientist from Aotearoa New Zealand. Dan actively lobbies and inspires New Zealanders to take care of their waterways – as a Principal Investigator for both Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence, and Te Pūhana Matatini and works around Aotearoa New Zealand to achieve better outcomes for the rivers and waterways.

In this piece Dan outlines one of his projects, which aims to reintroduce people to their waterways – to rekindle those relationships by exploring whakapapa, sharing river narratives, making hikoi along rivers, articulating the voice of the fish, the eels, the algae, the macroinvertebrates, the behaviour of the river. Collectively, these ‘voices’ constitute the ‘Te Awaroa – Voice of the River’ project.


Across Aotearoa New Zealand, many rivers are disappearing or no longer safe for fishing and swimming, and we are seriously concerned about declining river health. It seems like everyone I talk to from my generation and older had a favourite river or waterhole that they enjoyed as part of growing up as a Kiwi kid. When asked, very few them would swim in that same river today – if it actually still exists. The ‘bottom line’ regulatory approach of the government’s freshwater reforms is flawed.

“A critical strand of this effort is to understand the issue from the perspective of the river; what would the river say? What is it saying?”

Inspired by and drawing from mātauranga Māori, I am leading the Te Awaroa team, which aspires to catalyse a national movement of New Zealanders taking action to care for their waterways. A critical strand of this effort is to understand the issue from the perspective of the river; what would the river say? What is it saying? Buoyed by the Te Awa Tupua Act 2017, whereby the Whanganui River has been accorded legal personhood – recognised as an ancestor and an integrated living whole which flows from mountains to sea – we seek to articulate, and then empower the Voice of the River.

In a Māori worldview, because there is only one set of primal parents, all things are related and we exist in a kinship-based relationship with te taiao – the earth, universe and everything within it. Whakapapa is the central principle that orders te taiao. Water appears early in the whakapapa, emerging while Ranginui and Papatūānuku are still locked in loving embrace:

Ā, ko Rū-nuku, ko Rū-rangi, ko Rū-papa,
ko Rū-take, ko Rū-kerekere,
Ko Rū-ngātoro ko koukou mataero, koi runga,
Koai ū-whāio, Ko Rū-ngātoro,
Ko Wai-o-nuku, Ko Wai-o-rangi,
Ko Wai-papa, Ko Wai-take, ko Manatu.

And, the Earth trembles, the Sky trembles, the Ground trembles,
the Source trembles, the intense trembles,
the resounding trembles, anoint the thin surface above,
Then numerous trembles, resounding ko Manatu, tremble, the ebbing,
the Waters of the Earth, the Waters of Heaven,
the Waters of the ground, the Source of Waters, the ebbing.

(From the writings of Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikaheke)

Taiao is considered as one, whole, interconnected system, which comprises component parts: taimoana, the realm of water; taiwhenua, the realm of land; taitangata, the realm of living things; tairangi, the realm of the atmosphere. Parts that are never considered as discrete, individual pieces, but only ever as part of the whole, as they are inextricably linked.

Across New Zealand, many rivers are no longer safe for fishing and swimming, and Kiwis are really worried about our rivers. And those are the rivers and streams that haven’t been subjected to the abject humiliation of having been buried alive in pipes, or those that only flow sporadically, if at all, as their waters have been over-allocated for irrigation or other purposes.

Waterways in New Zealand are in a perilous state. Research shows an alarming and overwhelming trend of degraded water quality, of lost wetlands, of exhausted or polluted aquifers and intensive catchment land modification. Whether too little, too much, or too dirty, for many years voices articulating fears about the decline were ignored in favour of development imperatives, but more recently communities, industry, business, politicians and philanthropists have joined the chorus of concern.

“The details of what we are doing to the Earth, and how harmful our impacts are, are complex and some of the facts controversial – or even just being ignored.”

Sadly, New Zealand is not alone. The truth is that dominant civilisations on the planet are behaving in a way that is leading our children and our children’s children and our children’s children’s children into a bleak, unsustainable future, that most of us don’t want.

The details of what we are doing to the Earth, and how harmful our impacts are, are complex and some of the facts controversial – or even just being ignored. However, it is patently obvious that we humans are behaving in a manner which is destroying the taiao. It seems that we just don’t care, and our rivers are dying because of it.

Te Awaroa research and action project
Te Awaroa – Voice of the River, is a foundational Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga research and action project intent on catalysing and inspiring a national movement of New Zealanders taking care of their waterways with a goal of 1,000 rivers in a state of ora (health) by 2050.

Te Awaroa seeks to transform New Zealanders’ relationship with rivers, founded upon a kinship relationship with te taiao, and building on practical and personal connections to foster a duty of care. Although a kinship approach is drawn from a Māori worldview and knowledge base, the idea enjoys widespread support from many Kiwis, as it is consistent with how many of us ‘feel’.

Within this framework, Te Awaroa will use participatory and action research approaches, along with mana whenua monitoring, maintenance and enhancement to allow the emergence of newly rediscovered and innovative approaches and tools to establish healthy relationships between a waterway and its people, animals and plants, to bring about a very different way of living with rivers.

A critical difference of the Te Awaroa effort is to reframe the issue from the perspective of the river; what would the river say? What is it saying? We seek to listen, then articulate, and then empower the voice of the river, drawing from all knowledge available.

We seek to understand river health: what the water quality is – nutrients, sediments, pathogens, human, animal and industrial waste, and whether there is enough water for the flora and fauna to thrive.

We seek to understand river behaviour: the underlying geology, fluvial geomorphology, flooding. When a river floods, it is a river behaving like a river.

We seek the rivers’ stories – how we know the river – from multiple views and perspectives. Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au.

Other recent media by Dan:

Kaitiakitanga – it is our only hope

Nau mai haere mai ki WaiNZ

Te Awaroa – Voice of the River

Dirty rivers destroying mauri of our oceans

Mātauranga Māori in modern day research

The Future of our Seas – a panel discussion

The world’s struggling seas need new legal status, expert says


Dr Daniel (Dan) Hikuroa, a Principal Investigator at Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga and Te Pūnaha Matatini, is an earth systems scientist at the University of Auckland, who integrates mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and science to realise the dreams and aspirations of the communities he works with. His seminal 2017 research article ‘Mātauranga Māori – the ūkaipō of knowledge in New Zealand‘, demonstrated that mātauranga Māori can be accurate, precise and rigorous, and therefore can be considered as formal evidence. Dan’s many projects include co-writing the 2014 State of the Hauraki Gulf Environment Report.