Tairāwhiti iwi lead conversation on mortuary waste

By Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes

A proposed bylaw, the first of its kind in Aotearoa, will prevent mortuary wastewater being discharged into oceans and rivers. Tairāwhiti iwi have long opposed the practice, and are now nearing an alternative solution after advising the local council on a mātauranga Māori approach. 

"From funeral homes and mortuaries, the sensitive materials, from that process are released directly into our municipal sewerage system, and that eventually finds its way out into our rivers and oceans. This bylaw proposes to prohibit that particular practice, there it will be a solution that we respect our tūpāpaku", says Ian Ruru, chair of the Kiwa advisory group. 

Beyond protecting the dignity of the dead, there are also considerations for the environment.

"These sensitive materials, they eventually find their way out into our rivers and oceans and that's exactly where we swim, play, do waka ama and mahinga kai, so we're talking about protecting the practices of mahinga kai as well."

Under pressure

Currently, mortuary waste is sent to the wastewater treatment plant, as is the human waste from households and businesses in this area, which is then treated and released into the sea.

However on occasion, due to heavy rain, the system is overwhelmed, and untreated waste is released directly into the rivers.

"Under heavy rain events, the municipal system can't cope with the extra rain and water that's flowing into the system, so to relieve the pressure from that system the valves or the pipes are opened up and we have raw sewerage that is released into these exact rivers," Ruru says. 

The wastewater management committee has four council representatives who work with four tangata whenua representatives. 

The Kiwa advisory group has representatives from seven Tairāwhiti tribes including Rongowhakaata, Ngāti Oneone, Ngāi Tāmanuhiri, Ngā Ariki Kaipūtahi, Te Aitanga ā Māhaki, Ngāi Tāmanuhiri and Ngāti Porou. The group provides technical and mātauranga expertise to the wastewater management committee.

Mātauranga-based solution

"It's a universal issue, and we base it on the principle of 'tapu' and 'noa', and there's no wastewater system that can actually treat that to a 'noa' state so hence we've come with our own mātauranga-based solution. That which comes from Papatūānuku, returns to Papatūānuku. Our solution integrates tikanga Māori with technology and it provides the option so that we no longer put mortuary materials into our sewerage system or into our rivers and oceans."

Tairāwhiti iwi have been at odds with the practice for 55 years, and for the Ruru whānau it's an intergenerational issue. Due to what Ian Ruru refers to as a marked improvement in the relationship between council and iwi, and the development of ideas within the council, the two groups have been able to reach an agreement on the matter.

"I'd like to acknowledge my father Bill Ruru, I think he'll be smiling from above to get to this point. He was a staunch proponent of removing mortuary waste from our wastewater, as with our other relations and so I acknowledge a whole lot of work that's gone on behind the scenes."

Thirty-year battle

For more than 30 years, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki has voiced its concerns to the council about mortuary waste flowing into the Tūranganui-a-Kiwa moana, rivers and waterways.

Respected elder Wīrangi Pera of Te Aitanga a Māhaki, in an interview with Te Ao News in 2019, stated that, "The waste that comes from the hospital and mortuaries, it flows straight out to where we gather seafood. What we want is for the council to stop doing that, so that our food sources are okay for the generations following us.”

Also in 2019, Te Ao News also heard from Christie Tāwhai Patumaka, a local Tairāwhiti artist who raised awareness about the issue, following a decision in 2016 by the Gisborne District Council, which voted against investigating the removal of mortuary and funeral home waste from the city's wastewater stream for discharge to land. 

Fast forward to 2020, and iwi are gaining traction. As a first in the country, it's hoped that this trade waste bylaw will be an example for other councils to follow.

Ian Ruru says, "We're really hopeful that this new bylaw is a catalyst for other iwi and other councils around the country, to work together in partnership to ultimately improve and restore the mauri of our rivers, the lands and our people."

The bylaw will be finalised in the new year.