Water and Livelihood

Ko Tapuwai-o-Uenuku te Maunga - Benio, Eastern Southland looking towards the Blue Mountains

E kore te wai, e kore te tangata.
No water, no people.

This has been the big issue at centre of attention in every community I’ve worked in and in conversations at International Rural Churches conferences: water.
How crucial it is.
How dangerous it is.
How contested it has become.
And how easily we turn it from fresh water, wai Māori, to wai paru.


Without it, the land in Genesis 2 is not yet a seed bed for life.  When water enters the story, the narrator goes overboard describing rivers flowing from all directions. Sheer repetition (cf. the repetition of the phrase “seed-bearing plants bearing seeds” in Genesis 1) pointing to life as proliferation.  

As a Southland sheep farmer’s daughter, I didn’t know much about irrigation.  A few decades back, an old farmer in the Manuherekia Valley enlightened me about the process of going round the farm with a shovel, releasing water from border dyke irrigation. The goal was to get an even flow across the paddocks. He was an expert, never a bare patch on any slope. On the international scene, getting piped water was the priority for churches I met in the Sulawesi mountains.  And in Malawi the priority is community water pumps, USD4,000 ready-made or, better, teach rural youth to be engineering entrepreneurs to build minimal cost versions. 

Low cost pump using recycled materials

Water pump constructed by students at University of Mzuzu


Etched in my mind is the Methven community gathered en masse to farewell a toddler who’d got through an open gate and drowned in a water race. It was close to where his grandmother had taken her own life some years before. Crucial for that farming community, but devastatingly deadly.


Contested for access and control and when it comes to rivers contested upstream and downstream. Between countries – the Indus flowing through Pakistan and India, the Rhine flowing across Europe.  Between States: Australia’s Murray River, from the Cubbie Station cotton farm the headwaters in south-west Queensland, through New South Wales and South Australia, with a contest also between land use and urban use. Likewise the Waikato,  from mountains, through farm land and urban areas, with the country’s biggest city arguing its need for increased access.

Regarding our local rivers the debate is about flow levels in relation to issues of water use and water quality – electricity, farm land irrigation, fishing, algae control, and mahinga kai (traditional food sites). The Otago Regional Council is currently asking us to “Have your say” on Manuherekia River water management scenarios.

Who owns the water?  

Ngāi Tahu’s freshwater claim to the Waitangi Tribunal is not about ownership. Their kaupapa is to design jointly (with the Crown) a better system to manage and care for our precious waterways, for the benefit of present and future generations.  They have their eye on the age to come, and are guided and driven by tikanga tuku iho – principles and values handed down the generations.

This has common ground with whanau Karaiti, people of Christian faith. We who are whanau Karaiti have an eye clearly on the age come and continually remind ourselves of what is tuku iho, handed down to us.  In the biblical heritage, water is gift.  Like the land, it is gift that keeps on giving, so long as we don’t do harm to it or put blockages in the way. 

Don’t treat the soil like dirt, says my nephew.  Even more so with water, on which the life of the soil depends.  To treat it as a commodity and battle over it is not to treat it as gift to treasure.  

Living Water

In John 4 Jesus meets a woman of Samaria at a well and they get talking about living water.  Kathleen Rushton SM reads this text located at Jacob’s well in relation to the ongoing contest for water in her region of Canterbury. For Sr Kath the whole of John’s gospel is best understood in the terms laid out in the prologue in chapter 1, namely the fundamentals of life’s origins and purpose. 

“Water”, she writes, “enables the birth of the stars, contributes to the formation of the planets, the forming and cooling of earth.  Enveloped by water, Earth’s creativity flourishes… Water maintains life by moving nutrients and energy within each living cell and between the cells of the whole organism.”  

As much as we are earth creature from the earth (adam the human being from adamah the top-soil), we are “waterlings from water”.*

In John 4, the woman, named Photina in early Christian references, has been forced to the edge by politics and culture.  Access to water, instead of being open and available to all peoples who may need it, has become exclusive.  Jacob’s well is a Samaritan well, with access closely controlled.  As a woman without a husband, having lost many and at this point not seeking another, Photina is at the very bottom of the economic system working as a water carrier, hard labour and borderline survival wages. Jesus also is at the edge, in his case because he is a Jew who, by rights, would not drink from a Samaritan water source.  But who “owns” Jacob’s well?  Sr Kath describes an image that is in a 3rd century Roman catacomb.  What is significant is that the woman standing in flowing water.  It is gushing out, nothing holding it back. It cannot be contained or controlled.

At the start of the episode Jacob’s well is referred to as pēgē, a spring. Other words are used as they speak of the well and of living water.  But there is a key point where Jesus uses that word again, saying: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to the age to come.”  (v.14)

Water Released – Livelihood Released

Water is released: freed from economic and political control.  So also is life and livelihood.  

Indeed, livelihood is the issue at the heart of life on the land.  That is what farming is about. Viability that gives your household the means for life, a viability that is not just figures on a balance sheet.  In my experience it always was and still is about sustaining the land, to sustain the people.  

At Knox Church last November I told the story of my family’s relationship over the years with a farm in Eastern Southland.**   During my ministry, working with rural church people, I’ve asked them to tell the story of the land they work, as a way of digging into the connection between their faith and life on the land (this works with home gardeners too).  With my family – as with many other stories I’ve heard – it is a story of change and of care.  In our case, four generations deeply motivated to till and to keep (Genesis 2:15), learning with the times, making changes for the good for the land as they have understood it.  

The current situation in relation to water and farming relates to the pressing need as a nation to prevent further degradation in water quality and to work to restore waterways to a healthy state for the future. “Farmers fear new water rules could push them under” was a headline from earlier this year.  Regulations have always be the bane of their lives because farmers are fiercely independent and don’t appreciate a heavy hand from above.  Also because, as is the case in many spheres of life, one size does not fit all.  Farmer-driven plans and targets for meeting agreed goals in the local context would work so much better than blanket regulations.

Rural/Urban Divide

What hasn’t helped the conversation is the gap in understanding between rural and urban people, something that has become greater over recent decades with fewer town families now having relations living on the land and therefore a chance to experience rural life. 

I stand in two worlds, with rural origins plus continuing contact and rather many years of urban-based university education.  Thirty odd years ago the Association of Presbyterian Women’s magazine Harvest Field got me to write an article on the urban/rural divide, a matter that was already a growing concern then.  My key point was that the distrust (and sometimes disdain) works both ways.  On the receiving end it felt like a case of “judge us before you know us” but I was, and am, aware that it works rural to urban as much as urban to rural. A clear case of othering – what is not our own kind is “other” and therefore alien. The step that follows on from this sense of alienation is fear of the other, the source of most if not all conflicts in our world.

Living in Northland I came to articulate the urban/rural divide in terms of two languages.  Rural people, as well as speaking their own lingo in country contexts, can change out of working clothes, go to town, and speak in terms urban folk understand.  Country people have always interacted as equals with business and professional people and those who have practical skills like they do – in trades and in manual work.  With improved mobility and technology, plus the cultural dominance through the media of urban perspectives, rural people now live in two worlds.  We are, effectively, bi-lingual.  

I got to know a lot of te reo speakers in the Far North, many who only learnt English when they went to school.  Maori is their “heart” language. Even for those who have learnt te reo Māori second to English, the intonation and the concepts of the reo touch their spirits in ways te reo Pākehā never can. And yet the dominant view has been that, if they can speak English, why should anyone bother learning Māori. I thought that was changing but after returning south I’m hearing it again.

What is the benefit of people, including Pākehā like me, learning Māori?  It is in discovering how “the other side” sees the world.  It gives insight into the ideas and values that drive them, the internal meaning of their words, their understanding of what counts as best practice, and their aspirations for the future.  Learning te reo opens up one’s understanding of the other and they become less “other”.  No longer to be feared. No longer felt to be a threat.   

Likewise when urban learns “rural”. 

Water is perhaps the conversation topic that needs urban and rural voices talking together and learning to understand each other’s “reo”.  Not talking past each other, but, in the words of Nelle Morton, hearing each other to speech.***  

Speaking because the other is listening. 

Based on a presentation to the North Otago Dunedin Regional Presbytery at Palmerston on 25.05.2021


Kathleen Rushton SM, “Waterlings from Water: Exploring a Cosmological, Eschatological Reading of ‘Living Water’ in John 4:4-42 amidst the Braided Rivers of Canterbury, Aotearoa New Zealand, in Creation and Hope: Reflections on Ecological Anticipation and Action from Aotearoa New Zealand, ed. Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Andrew Shepherd, p.92

** Knox News December 2020 January 2021

***Nelle Morton, The Journey is Home