Soapbox: Damn the Dam

The choice to us seems obvious. Dam the Mokihinui River and flood 330 hectares of lush West Coast forest abundant in diverse plants and birdlife, 14 kilometres of river gorge heaving with longfin eels and koaro fish, with whio (blue ducks) paddling its rapids.

Mokihinui, Craig Potton

Mokihinui, Craig Potton

Or divert acid drainage water from Stockton Plateau coal mines away from the Ngakawau River, and pipe it through reservoirs on already modified land. Both would generate electricity.

Combined with other schemes, both would power the West Coast. But one sets out to destroy the environment, and the other seeks to remedy past damage.

It’s all about the way we view the world. If we see it as our right to plunder, to produce, alter, remove and forever change our natural places to meet our ongoing demand for growth, then we will allow Meridian Energy to dam the Mokihinui.

Even more insidiously, if we put on our reasonable, “balancing” hats and weigh up the issues – thinking that we need to sacrifice some areas for growth and on balance perhaps that is the price to pay – then we may still choose to dam the Mokihinui.

What happens after the Mokihinui is dammed? In six months, a year, perhaps two, another river will need to be dammed to meet our demand for energy, and we still won’t have addressed our destructive tendencies.

But if we recognise we have been given a privileged opportunity on Earth with the mental capacity to consider our relationship with the soil, water, and plants upon which our lives depend and to consider our responsibilities to these ecosystems, we may chose the Stockton option.

Conservation Director-General Al Morrison, in a rousing and spirited speech in October, challenged us to make the leap.

Perhaps he had the Mokihinui in mind – after all, the Department of Conservation has been strong in its ecological analysis and evidence to show that the Mokihinui is a river worth protecting.

Meridian Energy – our very own state enterprise – has taken the old approach. Despite being a major sponsor of Project Crimson, which promotes our beautiful pohutukawa and rata trees, Meridian Energy plans to dam the Mokihinui, drowning the very rata forests it pledges to protect.

Meridian argues the power is needed for the Coast and damming the Mokihinui is the only option.

Now the Stockton hydro scheme has been consented, Meridian argues a Mokihinui dam is needed for Nelson and Marlborough – ultimately anywhere it can feed the grid demand.

Meridian’s approach is faulty. As a country with finite resources that are being “trashed” (to quote Mr Morrison) at previously unknown rates, the dam ’em and drown ’em mentality will only add to the ecological disaster bearing down upon us.

If we were truly to put the requirements of our ecosystems ahead of an outdated anthropocentric approach, we would recognise our place in the system, and the opportunity we have to make wise, sustainable and remedial decisions.

We need to look at how our finite resources can provide for us into the future – not just a three-year election cycle.

Some indigenous nations look to a future seven generations ahead. Can we say a decision to dam the Mokihinui will be good for New Zealanders in, say, 200 years? Let’s make the right choice and protect one of our few remaining truly wild rivers.

Debs Martin is Forest & Bird’s Top of the South Field Officer.