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The highly polluted rivers of New Zealand – This week on FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT

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It’s a toxic brew of dirty water and big business. And it’s jeopardising New Zealand’s ‘100% pure’ clean, green image.

New Zealand’s pristine landscapes and stunning vistas have made it a magnet for tourists and film directors. Its dairy exports have taken the world by storm.

But behind this success story lies a shocking reality. New Zealand has some of the most polluted rivers in the developed world. 

Scientists blame the ‘white gold rush’ – the rapid expansion of the country’s hugely successful dairy industry, worth around $15 billion a year.

In a visually stunning report, correspondent Yaara Bou Melhem travels to the South Island of New Zealand to investigate an issue which is dividing communities.

There she finds rivers contaminated with high levels of nitrogen, run-off from intensive dairy farming practices.

In some cases, this run-off causes toxic algae blooms posing a danger to people and animals. It can make rivers un-swimmable.

“When you have excessive nutrients and sediments coming into the system, these blooms can really take off,” says freshwater ecologist and local councillor Lan Pham. “It just fuels this disconnection with the river.”

The Ardern government, which was re-elected in a landslide last year, has promised to clean up.

“I want our waterways to be swimmable again,” said Ardern in the lead up to last year’s election. “We’re putting in place standards that…stop the degradation.”

The government has introduced limits on the level of nitrates allowed in freshwater but these reforms have left no-one happy. Ecologists warn they’ve set the level too high and that this could be damaging to life in the rivers.

Many farmers claim the levels are set too low and will destroy the dairy industry.

“We will have a dislocation of thousands upon thousands of people,” warns South Island dairy farmer John Sunckell.

“Do we want to get rid of agriculture? It becomes that blunt with the numbers.”

New Zealand’s wealthiest Maori tribe has stepped into the stalemate. The Ngai Tahu, whose territory spans a huge swathe of the South Island, has filed a landmark high court claim over the freshwater systems in its tribal lands.

“There’s been a failure of government, there’s been a failure of the market and the only one standing with any credibility on this is the Maori,” says the lead claimant in the case, Dr Tau.

It’s a huge battle over this most precious natural resource – freshwater – and there’s no end in sight.

Watch Troubled Waters on Foreign Correspondent – Tuesday 16 March at 8pm on ABC TV + iview.

You can catch replays on ABC NEWS channel Thursdays at 12:30am, Saturdays at 9:30pm and Sundays at 6:30pm.

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