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Borne by the river


What is Wairoa without its river? It is nothing, say the founders of the Wairoa Awa Restoration Project. Shaan Te Kani gains an insight into the group that is working to restore the life of the Wairoa River and its tributaries for future generations.

A strong kinship exists between the people of the Wairoa district and their awa, their river.

The Wairoa River runs 65 km from Te Reinga Falls, west of Gisborne, before flowing into the Wairoa township and out to sea.

It is a life source to its surroundings — trees, plants, birds, fish, and the people.

Generations of families were born by the river, grew up on the river, have fished and lived off it.

Great historical events have occurred in and around the river, from major battles between local iwi during pre-colonial times, to the Wairoa Bridge being washed away during Cyclone Bola in 1988.

The relationship between the awa and the people is reflected in its full name — Wairoa Hopupu Honengenenge Matangirau.

This refers to its long, swirling, uneven and turbulent waters that have hidden currents. But as the waters near the sea, they become calm.

This has often been used as a metaphor for the nature of the Wairoa people — contesting matters with much debate, but coming together on major issues.

In recent years, this analogy could not be more appropriate.

The state of the entire Wairoa River network has been a topical issue, with concerns of the health of the awa by the community.

Major tributaries include the Hangaroa, Ruakituri, Mangapoike, Mangaaruhe, Waiau and Waikaretaheke rivers.

The river network has a catchment area of 3660 square kms, which includes Lake Waikaremoana.

Back in 2015, tonnes of silt were released into the Waiau River.

The discharge was due to sediment buildup at the nearby Eastland Group-owned Waihi hydro dam, which had been damaged after a major weather event in September 2015.

The environmental effects were far-reaching for locals. Wairoa farmers said the discharge damaged stock feed water supplies and locals said eel and whitebait numbers were low.

The event resulted in protest, a hearing, remediation, settlement and more protest.

It was also the catalyst for a community movement to restore the mauri, or life force, of not only the Waiau River but all the waterways of the Wairoa River network.

‘We are the awa and the awa is us’The Wairoa Awa Restoration Project (WARP) was born out of these swirling events.

Founder Michelle McIlroy said the aim is to not only keep local government, corporations and the community accountable, but to also take a hands-on approach to restoring the mauri of the awa.

“Our river is the largest waterway in Hawke’s Bay and it now has permanent contamination signs on its banks and has been in a poor condition for a number of years.

“High sedimentation has impacted on our awa health, because the UV rays cannot penetrate the water with high silt content resulting in high E-coli readings.

“There are other contributors also like wastewater, agriculture, horticulture.

“The eels are the cultural health indicator. If the eels are in trouble the river is in trouble.”

After the Waihi dam event, a $250,000 out-of-court settlement was reached between Hawke’s Bay Regional Council and Eastland Group relating to Environment Court charges for silt discharges.

However, the community was disappointed that “not one cent” of the out-of-court settlement money had gone to fixing the river.

The first drop, of $100,000, went to the Wairoa Destination Playground project earlier this year, after the Wairoa District Council agreed that should be the recipient.

“That protest raised more awareness about our awa,” says Michelle.

“After that, I saw a council sign by the Wairoa Water Ski Club to say contamination levels were four times over the limit.

“I made a noise about it, that there should be more signage and awareness. It was a public health risk. The council eventually put up more signs.

“It was about them acknowledging what they’ve done, and us saying ‘hey we’re watching you. You’re making bad decisions and what are you doing to help our river?’

“It is my people who are getting into that river. It is my people who are eating the kai.

“My father taught us to love that river. It is entrenched in us. It provides for us. It is our playground.

“For mana whenua there is a spiritual connection to our awa, it is in our whakapapa.

“Their excuse for the giving money to the playground was to enhance the CBD. What about enhancing the river?

“What is Wairoa without its river? Nothing.

“It runs through the heart of our town.

“We are the awa, and the awa is us.”

WARP is about embracing that relationship, says Michelle.

It’s about the community playing their part in any way to help the awa, and ultimately, themselves.

“We thought, ‘well what can we do other than moan?’ And that’s how WARP started.

“It is a community beacon for members of Wairoa to keep vigilant and voice concerns about the environment.

“But we also discuss positive kaupapa and ways forward.

“Lets look at a holistic view of restoring the awa.”

One way of paying it forward is by planting native trees along the river to alleviate erosion and discharge into the waterways.

“‘A tree today, a ngahere tomorrow’, that’s my motto.

“This is legacy planting — a future for improved water quality for our tamariki and mokopuna.

“It’s about ecosourcing seeds, propagating and growing trees.

“That may consist of you doing your bit for the awa in your own backyard.

“In my whanau we have been growing native trees from seed for our own riparian on our river banks that we still fish from.

“Also, I am contributing plants towards my marae, to go on the river bank below it.

“We want to grow the biodiversity, bring the birds and insects back.

“We go out and get the seeds, have seed-gathering workshops. We have visited a native plant nursery.

“We decided you can either complain and give up or get up and grow a seed. So we decided let’s do this, we have to do something for our babies future.

“It is a positive way in addressing the erosion issues in our rohe, reverse erosion by planting trees — and not just any tree, native trees.

“We are flaxroots. We have established legacy planting that could turn erosion around.

“That’s the vision, and everyone can be part of it, from a toddler to a pakeke (elder). But this is all for our tamariki and mokopuna, our future generations.

“This kaupapa is infectious. I know there are others who want to create a community nursery as well.

“Other organisations in our rohe (area) are thinking the same way but on a larger commercial scale and that is also


A plan towards legacy planting is also happening on a regional and national level with initiatives such as the Government’s goal to plant 1 billion trees over the next decade.

Hawke’s Bay has a tree planting initiative called The Kahutia Accord Project, in which it aims to become the first carbon neutral province.

Michelle sees these as great opportunities but says the major change agent is the community.

“There are great possibilities for the future with the likes of the Kahutia Accord.

“In the end it is all about cloaking the whenua with ngahere (native forests).

“We can all see the value of it and where its going to go, but these things all take time.

“I say take advantage of the time between now and then and learn, educate yourself on how to make a seed into a tree, a tree into a ngahere and a future for our tamariki and mokopuna."


The Wairoa River is the heart of the Wairoa township and its community. A new community group is working to restore the mauri, the life force of the river. Wairoa Star picture
Silt from the Waihi dam on the Waiau River. Wairoa Star picture
Tuakana McIlroy is one of the eco warriors of the Wairoa Awa Restoration Project, who has been propagating seeds and growing trees with her whanau to replant on the Wairoa riverbank. Picture supplied