I’m inside a pipe on the Canterbury Plains with Olga from Greenpeace. We each have an arm secured into a tube inside a two and a half metre irrigation pipe. We’re in a ditch between the Rakaia and Waimakariri Rivers. Our pipe is one of many being laid right now across the Canterbury Plains for more irrigation to grow more grass to feed more cows.
Now that the adrenaline has slowed and we’ve adjusted to our surroundings, Olga and I take turns sitting on our camp chair while the other stands. I stamp my feet and the sound echoes back along the pipe. Now and then there’s a crash above my head as loose stones fall onto the pipe from above.
A magpie’s quardle oodle wardle doodle heralds dawn and the four metre deep sides of our ditch come into view.
Glaciers retreated from here around 18,000 years ago. The braided rivers and many metres of loose rock, gravel and silt remain, making up today’s Canterbury Plains.
This is where Central Plains Water is laying Stage 2 of the irrigation scheme that, along with the already completed Stage 1 and a planned Sheffield Storage pond, will allow further dairy intensification.
I’ve got my bearings now. Beyond our ditch to the west are the Southern Alps. To my left, hidden in the Malvern Hills, Bathurst Resources are mining coal. To my right Fonterra’s Darfield factory burns it, to dry the milk produced all around me. Behind me lies the Selwyn River and beyond that towards the sea is Lake Ellesmere.
On a still evening as the sun creeps below the Southern Alps a cow shit aroma permeates through your open car window on the drive along State Highway 1. My daughter was told not to drink Ashburton water while pregnant due to high nitrate levels. Nearby Christchurch city still boasts the best tasting untreated water in the country. I always fill my water bottles at Christchurch friends’ taps when visiting from Dunedin. Now industry group Water New Zealand’s John Pfahlert strongly recommends Christchurch water be treated to avoid a campylobacter outbreak like last year’s in Havelock North.
We’re already sick from water. Figures published last year by CDHB show that around 34,000 Cantabrians get sick from waterborne illnesses each year.
Inside the pipe Olga and I share stories and one-handed massages. Police visit, check out our fastening contraption and warn us of an impending flood due through the pipe at any time. What if we were to have a heart attack then and there, one officer asks. We thank him for his concern but tell him we intend to stay.
We watch a site manager’s feet crossing the metal bridge above us, cellphone to ear. “Two sheilas in the pipe…” we hear, along with other unpublishable words. He descends the ladder, pokes his head into the pipe and asks politely “You ladies all right in there?” Yes thanks. With another warning about being washed away he is gone.
It’s getting colder. We’re pleased to be under cover and our spirits are high. I’m making this stand on behalf of over 90,000 New Zealanders who signed a petition against the government’s $480 million funding of big irrigation schemes.
Now that I can see below the green grass and black-and-white cows of the Canterbury Plains it’s pretty clear the mess we’re in. I’m stuck in a pipe, but what about the rest of us? Stuck in crap up to our eyeballs, it looks from here. I will walk out of of this pipe with or without a police escort, but how many decades, how many generations will it take to fix this mess?
It didn’t have to be like this. Cantabrians voted down this irrigation scheme in 2010 then lost their democratic rights when elected Environment Canterbury (ECan) members were sacked. No surprises that the newly Government-appointed councillors didn’t go out of their way to oppose the scheme during its consenting process.
Our taxes now support this and eight other planned irrigation schemes via the government’s $480 million Irrigation Acceleration Fund. Lake Ellesmere, the Selwyn and the rest are paying the price. My daughter and people all over Canterbury are paying the price.
I spent my childhood cajoling cows into their bales for milking, shovelling their shit, making friends with their calves and forever feeling sticky and sucked and in love with those deep pools of darkness they have for eyes.
Today’s cows walk with heads down. This intensive dairying is bad for us all, them included.
But it could be my years as a union rep that gave me the courage to stand here today. I’ve seen how people together can make a stand for what is right and win. We can stop the irresponsible push for more dairy intensification. We can move to a type of farming that will allow us to restore our rivers and save what we have left for our grandchildren.
Greenpeace has invited us all to join them in September to make a stand and put a stop to more irrigation. I’ll be there.
Rosemary Penwarden is the daughter of a dairy farmer, a mother and grandmother.