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Working "shoulder-to-shoulder" with local Māori for a culturally-sound wastewater solution

August 09, 2018

By Jim Bradley

Environmental and public health engineer Jim Bradley (Auckland, New Zealand) on working together to find a technically sound wastewater treatment method that respects local Māori cultural values

Located on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the Hastings Wastewater Treatment Plant serves more than 45,000 people, a quarter of whom trace their lineage to the nation’s founding people—the Māori. 

The plant was originally commissioned in 1982 to fine-screen domestic sewage and industrial wastewater, then release it into the ocean waters of Hawke Bay. An appropriate approach at that time—from an engineering perspective. But for local Māori of the Ngāti Kahungunu iwi (tribe)—who are also known as tangata whenua, or people of the land—this practice had to stop. In their culture, discharging kūparu (human waste) into water—fresh or marine—is abhorrent. To secure a new permit, the Council had to find a treatment process the iwi could accept—one that removed all kūparu before releasing effluent into the ocean.

The kūparu quandary

When the Council went to its permit application hearing in 1998, the hearings panel adjourned proceedings for one year and charged the Council and local iwi with finding a new, mutually beneficial solution.

“New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, clearly outlines the partnership approach with Māori and the obligation to protect their principles,” says Jim. “In this spirit, we set out to discover a new approach to wastewater treatment for Hastings.”

A journey of discovery

“I’m a New Zealander of European descent—but I have decades of experience working with indigenous groups on wastewater projects across New Zealand,” says Jim Bradley from our Auckland, New Zealand office. He’s been with our Company, first as part of MWH and now as part of Stantec, for 48 years, and has stepped into many technical roles over the decades. On this occasion, Jim and others in the project team found themselves with a challenge that went far beyond traditional wastewater engineering.

Environmental and public health engineer Jim Bradley (Auckland, New Zealand)

The project team, alongside Council representatives and other members of the Hastings iwi, visited a number of New Zealand’s wastewater treatment plants to investigate various treatment processes and better understand their associated costs, benefits, and alignment with Māori cultural values.

Ngahiwi Tomoana  – a past member of the Hastings District Council’s tangata whenua Wastewater Joint Committee.

Shoulder to shoulder

When they returned to the hearing, the panel granted Council conditional approval to explore natural settling—a primary treatment process that creates sludge. The natural settling process was an improvement over the previous treatment methodology because it would keep the kūparu out of the ocean. But the sludge would have to be trucked away for disposal—right past the iwi cemeteries and spiritual meeting points, or marae. The transport would leave unwanted odor, sound, and cultural impacts in its wake, which meant natural settling wasn’t the whole solution.

The team had to try harder.

Fortunately, a transformation had occurred over the preceding year: the Council, iwi, and the Stantec team had forged strong personal and professional bonds. Whereas the Hastings District Council and iwi had previously stood “toe-to-toe,” as a senior iwi representative described it, they were now standing “shoulder-to-shoulder.” In other words, they were now facing the problem as partners, rather than as antagonists.

The a-ha moment

The team decided to look beyond New Zealand’s borders. They contacted wastewater colleagues in England and Spain, where they learned about the fine-screening of sewage in biological trickling filters: plastic media containing bacteria and biota that break down and remove organic material.

The engineers determined that wastewater could pass through these trickling filters very slowly, transforming kūparu into carbon biomass, carbon dioxide, and water, along with a residual of plant matter biomass. No sludge had to be disposed of via landfill or elsewhere, and the process would cost the Council approximately one-third less than the previously-proposed natural settling solution.

Jim recalls the turning point—what he calls the Road to Damascus moment—when the client and iwi came together to adopt this proposed solution. Jim was in “full flight on the whiteboard,” drawing a complex schematic of how the biological trickling filters would work. He turned around to describe the illustration and glanced at his audience. In that split second, Jim knew he had to change course with his approach and language.

“As engineers, we often use technical words,” Jim says. “But I was speaking to a group of non-technical individuals. My audience didn’t want to hear engineering terms: they wanted to hear how the process aligned with the Māori holistic worldview, where nature and human nature are one.”

So Jim explained how engineering could mirror nature. How biological treatment processes were no different than the bugs that live in a traditional long-drop toilet and break down waste over time. He talked about how algae, or slime, grows on stones in a river and helps clean river water. And he described how we could load “bugs” onto the biological trickling filters to serve the same purpose.

One by one, the people in the room began to nod their heads in understanding and agreement. The engineers started to understand the Māori’s point of view, and vice versa. The group also further developed the treatment process by adding a Rakahore rock channel—specially selected and blessed stones that allows the treated water to reconnect with Papatūānuku (earth mother), and regain its mauri (life force) prior to being discharged into Hawke Bay.

A Rakahore rock channel of specially selected and blessed stones allows treated water to reconnect with Papatūānuku (earth mother), and regain its mauri (life force) prior to being discharged into Hawke Bay.

Next steps

The team built a pilot plant to prove the technology and allow people to witness the natural processes at work. At the end of the six-month pilot, Jim borrowed a high-end microscope from another client—carrying it on a commercial flight with “kid gloves”—so the Council and iwi could see nature in action. Looking through the microscope, they saw bristle worms, swimming ciliates, and rotifers gobbling up the waste, producing water that looked very nearly clear.

In 2006, eight years after the journey to find a solution had begun, the consent authority issued a new permit to approve the biological trickling filters and the Rakahore rock channel.

Hastings today

The Hastings Wastewater Treatment Plant’s nine-metre high biological trickling filters and Rakahore rock channel were commissioned in 2008.

The Hastings Wastewater Treatment Plant in Hastings, New Zealand

The technology—the first of its kind in New Zealand—is working as planned and has been adopted in a similar way by four other local authorities in New Zealand. Also working well is the partnership relationship between the Council, Ngāti Kahungunu, and our Company. In fact, Stantec recently completed the replacement of the Hastings Wastewater Treatment Plant outfall’s diffuser pipe, a task that involved teams of divers, boats, and underwater mechanized tools.

“A decade on, the wastewater treatment plant continues to work very well, meeting both cultural and technical objectives,” says David James, Hastings District Council wastewater manager. “The partnership and journey with tangata whenua continues through our Tangata Whenua Joint Wastewater Committee, which advises Council on current and future wastewater treatment matters.”

“The Māori world view is all about holistic approaches that are in harmony with nature and human nature,” Jim says. “Likewise, good environmental engineering requires us to balance our human needs with those of the natural and built environment. Working together to address the Hastings challenge meant we achieved harmony at both a technical and a community level. Now, Hastings has a solution that works well, costs less, and will serve the area for decades to come.”

Ngahiwi Tomoana, chairman of Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Incorporated and a past member of the Hastings District Council’s Tangata Whenua Wastewater Joint Committee agrees wholeheartedly: “This is the answer for the future, whakapapa (genealogy), tikanga (Māori protocol, values and practices), science, and engineering working together to create solutions for future generations.”


Individuals included in the following groups played an important part in the Hastings Wastewater Project:

  • Councillors and staff of the Hastings District Council
  • Iwi representatives and Councillors of the Hastings District Council’s Tangata Whenua Wastewater Joint Committee
  • Stantec planning, environmental science, and wastewater engineering personnel
  • Jim Bradley

    Jim Bradley is Technical Director, Environmental & Public Health for our New Zealand business and works at the front end of water, wastewater and stormwater projects while playing a critical role in strategic thinking and business development.

    Contact Jim
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