River with a legal voice – the Wanganui/Whanganui River

The Whanganui River is about to become a legal entity in its own right. Te Awa Tupua is an environmental settlement recognising the intrinsic value of the awa/river. The river will have rights, something the Maori iwi and hapu living alongside it have considered for hundreds of years.

The settlement provides a new lens through which to view the river and will require a shift in thinking. It’s an opportunity for New Zealanders to be brave and bold, to show the world a new type of decision making and understanding.


It will refocus the community on a new way of managing land and governmental issues, a way that is respectful to tangata whenua, a reconciled future. 

It is globally significant. The river has its own personality, values and being which will change how the government will engage with it, very different to the Western construct of owning, governing and managing land. The environment can only benefit.

Wanganui river

Gerrard Albert, Te Awa Tupua negotiator explains: “Custodianship does not belong to a physical person. In our world view, the true kaitiaki, the mouri/life forces are still in the river, at each rapid. This culturally and spiritually based ethos determines our relationship with the river, our world view, and guides our decisions. We’re not masters of the environment, we’re part of it and need to make decisions based on the best interest of the resource.”

The main issues in having a healthy river and healthy communities beside it relate to land use, erosion and sediment loads, and climate change. All the people – government bodies, community groups and others in the catchment area, from the mountains to the sea, will be talking to each other.

Coastguard fizzboat on Wanganui River

It can only drive enhanced environmental and conservation outcomes. A $30 million contestable fund will be set up for projects relating to the well-being and health of Te Awa Tupua.

In the end, it’s the intentions and aspiration, the collaboration, building good, strong and respectful relationships which will matter for this, and any place, rather than the law.

Ko au te awa, te awa ko au. I am the river and the river is me.

Waimarie paddle wheel at work


Erosion on Whanganui River

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