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  • There are more than 16,000 km of rivers and streams in the Waikato region, several vast lakes and wetlands and a myriad of smaller water bodies. Water is one of the main forces shaping our land, as can be seen in the historical pathways of the Waikato River left as remnant peat lakes, in the river terraces and rich soil deposits of the Waikato basin and in the power and majesty of Huka Falls. Perhaps more than any other part of New Zealand, Waikato is a watery landscape. The Waikato River is the country’s longest river at 425 km, and Taupō is the largest lake at 622 km2. In addition, the region has 80% of the country’s geothermal systems, world-renowned wetlands (Whangamarino and Kopuatai) and crystalline springs feeding rivers like the Waihou – water so good it is bottled and sent overseas.

    Te mana o te awa

    Māori have strong cultural, traditional and historical links with these wetlands and inland waterways – see Te mana o te awa. Freshwater resources are spiritually significant and closely linked to the identity of the tangata whenua. Respecting waterways is an important part of the guardianship or kaitiakitanga role for Māori. Historically, major settlements were sited beside waterways, the principal means of transport in this area. This is reflected in the well-known Waikato whakataukī about the many chiefs living along the river:

    Waikato taniwha rau, he piko, he taniwha, he piko, he taniwha.
    (Waikato of the hundred taniwha, at every bend, a taniwha.)

    For centuries, rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands contributed significantly to the diet of Māori and still provide food resources for everyday use as well as kai hākari – special meals traditionally offered to guests or shared at significant events.

    Unique aquatic environments

    Waterways are also a place for aquatic plants and animals to live, including some rare and threatened species. Examples of rare freshwater fish include the giant kōkopu and the shortjaw kōkopu, and rare plants include a bladderwort species that gains nutrients by trapping aquatic invertebrates in its bladders and the world’s smallest vascular plant Wolffia australiana, both of which live in peat lakes.

    Managing multiple demands

    There are many conflicting demands placed upon our waterways. Our rivers are used for hydroelectricity, water supply, waste treatment, flood control and recreation such as fishing and boating. These activities can take a toll on the environment, often reflected in decreasing water quality. This can have consequences for the health of people and for the plants and animals that rely on these areas for food and habitats.

    The watery landscape of the Waikato has changed dramatically since European settlement. Changes are due largely to drainage and flood protection, vegetation clearance, the impacts of stock and feral animals, urban development, roading, industry and power generation. View some of the changes in the timeline History of the Waikato River.

    Related content

    Discover more about water catchments – this article features the Waikato River.

    Tōku awa koiora – introduction curates resources about the Waikato River ecosystems and the iwi, researchers and scientists who are working to restore and protect the health and wellbeing of the Waikato River.

    Lakes380 – Our lakes’ health: past, present, future – the largest scientific study ever undertaken of lakes in Aotearoa – has sampled some of the Waikato’s peat lakes.

    Waitī is a whetū in the Matariki cluster connected to freshwater ecosystems. She reminds us that the mauri of the people is closely connected to the mauri of our freshwater systems.

    Related activities

    Wai words introduces students to Māori classification of water and science content vocabulary associated with wai, water monitoring and water quality.

    Te mana o te wai explores the concept of mauri – the health and wellbeing of a waterway.

    Water in the Waikato uses online and paper maps to explore major freshwater features and sources of water for the Waikato region.

    Find out how some of the Waikato residents get clean drinking water with the activity Getting water ready to drink.

    How much water do you use each day? The activity Water use challenge helps you measure individual usage and consider how to prioritise this precious resource.


    This article has been developed in partnership with the Waikato Regional Council as part of the Rivers and Us resource.

      Published 2 March 2020 Referencing Hub articles
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