Water Crisis in New Zealand — Three Main Culprits

New Zealand is in the midst of a serious water crisis — one that puts its rivers, lakes, and beaches in peril. Farming isn’t the only reason for New Zealand’s water pollution problem — residential wastewater and mass tourism are also significant factors. The majority of its waterways are already classified as unswimmable. Uncontrolled algal growth threaten local fish and aquatic wildlife in these waterways. While the reasons for the problems are clear, the solutions can be complicated.

Farm Runoffs

Nitrogen from fertilizers, as well as biological waste from cattle, are some of the top contributors to New Zealand’s nitrogen pollution problem. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Science (NIWA) reported that the growth of pastoral farming is the biggest reason for the decline of water quality over the past 20 years. High amounts of nitrogen seeping into rivers and lakes are causing a boom in algal growth.

The government has already restricted the creation of new farms and the expansion of existing ones unless they can provide evidence that they will not increase pollution. It has set aside more than NZ$200 million for the transitioning of farms to more environmentally-friendly practices.

Farming and its effects on water quality have not gone unnoticed. In 2016, sheep faeces contaminated Havelock North’s water supply — creating an outbreak of gastroenteritis that affected more than 5,000 people and claimed the lives of four.

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Urban Wastewater

Water pollution is the primary concern of New Zealand residents but they are also one of the reasons for the problem. Close to 2 billion litres of residential wastewater finds its way to Waitematā Harbour — most of them coming from Meola Creek. Auckland has more than 200 overflow points and spills can range from 2 to 52 a year.

Residential wastewater is often left untreated but, a simple filtration and aeration system could eliminate most pollutants. There are several wastewater treatment plants around New Zealand — but not enough to cover the whole population. Residents will need to set up their own water treatment and filtration systems to mitigate their contribution to the water pollution problem.


While the tourism sector is alarmed by the state of New Zealand’s waterways and its possible effects on tourism, experts believe that the growth in tourism is having a negative effect on the environment. They point to Venice (Italy), Boracay (Philippines), and Bali (Indonesia) as examples of how too much tourism can be damaging to the environment.

Close to 4 million tourists visit New Zealand every year — almost doubling the population. According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the growing number of campers has caused problems in certain areas, waste being one of them. While there are existing initiatives that seek to educate campers on responsible camping, the lack of infrastructures like toilets in parks and other popular camping grounds are making it hard to limit tourists from going into the woods.

New Zealand’s water pollution problems require more than just one solution. With several factors all contributing to the problem, the government must address each and every one if it is to be successful in its efforts to restore the country’s waterways.

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