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The Economist explains: What’s in New Zealand’s water?

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WINDY cattle have always had an impact on their environment. But in New Zealand, where pastures that once grazed sheep have been converted into dairy farms to feed China’s appetite for milk, the situation is particularly noxious. Bovine burps (for these are the main problem) have contributed to a 23% rise in Kiwi greenhouse-gas emissions since 1990. Agriculture accounts for almost half of total emissions, a far higher share than in other rich countries. Consultants reckon that New Zealand needs to cut livestock numbers in order to meet its target of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. But gas is not the only problematic excretion. A second, less familiar environmental worry has emerged in a country that stakes its reputation on its purity. The bodily waste of the 6.6m dairy cattle sullies rivers and groundwater. Almost two-thirds of the country’s waterways are now unsafe for swimming.

Cows pollute water in a couple of ways. Their nitrogen-rich urine leaches off soil into waterways, where it acts like a fertiliser. Together with phosphorus, which is carried into rivers in soil particles, it can cause slime and toxic algae to grow. Half of monitored river sites in New Zealand are filled with enough nitrogen to trigger algal blooms, according to the OECD, a club of mostly rich nations. Toxic algae has killed at least 70 dogs since 2006. Across the intensively farmed Canterbury plains, pregnant women are advised to test their water for nitrates to avoid blue-baby syndrome, an ailment which can suffocate infants. But it is ecosystems that are most at risk. Too much nitrogen is toxic to fish, and excessive growth of algae depletes the oxygen in the water. Ecologists blame these pollutants in part for putting almost three-quarters of native fish under threat.

Further damage comes from manure, which carries nasty bacteria such as E.coli. Cows have an unfortunate fondness for wading, which means that their faeces are often deposited in water. New Zealanders are twice as likely as Britons to fall sick from campylobacter, another bug harboured in their dung, and are three times more vulnerable than Australians. Doctors say there are relatively high incidents of gastroenteritis in Canterbury, a region of New Zealand­’s South Island with lots of cows and untreated water. 

This frustrates New Zealanders. Some worry about the impacts on tourism, the only export industry that is more important than dairy farming. Over 3m people visit New Zealand annually, expecting it to be, as the tourism campaign promises, “100% Pure”. They might turn away if pollution worsens. Farmers have responded by fencing off rivers to prevent cows from wading in, and planting trees to curb soil erosion. Regional councils, at least in theory, are required to set limits for water quality to ensure that it does not diminish further. This year, a plan was hatched to make 90% of rivers safe for swimming by 2040. Yet many environmentalists were disappointed by the high level of the government-imposed guidelines for nitrates in water, which made rivers look safer than many believe them to be. As with emissions, ecologists argue that it is impossible to clean up water without first cutting the national herd. Even the new Labour government’s agriculture minister admits that the nation may have got close to the “maximum number of cows”.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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