Toronto Star: Ontario is overhauling its blue box program — and critics say it will be a disaster

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To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by the Toronto Star, was published on March 19, 2022. 

The new rules are so baffling, even key stakeholders say they don’t understand how it will work.

Though it dropped with little notice in the wider world, plunked down with scant fanfare in a late COVID spring, it was, nonetheless, a massive moment for many Ontario companies — not to mention Ontario cities, Ontario towns and anyone who owns an Ontario home, or just lives in one.

Ontario Regulation 391/21: Blue Box was published online on June 3, 2021. It laid out the terms by which Ontario’s entire curbside recycling regime would be overhauled over the next two years.

Under the current system, more than 240 Ontario municipalities run their own separate blue box programs, with the costs split between cities and the companies that produce and sell household plastics, metals, glass and printed paper. Under the new system, the companies themselves, including giants like McDonald’s, Unilever and Loblaws, will be responsible not just for the entire cost of the program, but for running it, too.

The new blue box regulation appeared following years of fevered lobbying by some of Ontario’s largest and most influential corporate interests. It set the stage for a change environmentalists hoped would drive a new era of better, more productive recycling in the province, and kicked off a fierce and barely concealed battle for hundreds of millions of dollars in annual collection and processing contracts.

It was, in other words, a big deal: for almost any company that sold or manufactured household products in Ontario; any company involved in the $2.8-billion Ontario waste management industry; and anyone interested in the environment or the economy of Ontario.

For Doug Ford’s government, the regulation was a defining piece of industrial and ecological policy, one that would touch the lives of almost every person in the province and set the stage for either a generation of household recycling gains in Ontario or several decades of costly and damaging stasis.

The stakes, then, could not have been higher, which is in part why so many players in the recycling world were completely baffled by what the government put out.

“I’ve been around this issue for a number of years,” said Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Circular Innovation Council (previously known at the Recycling Council of Ontario). “A lot of us have, and I remember when it first came out … we were calling each other going, ‘I don’t even know how to read this.’ ”

The idea behind Ontario’s big recycling change isn’t new or novel. Other jurisdictions, especially in Europe but more recently in North America too, have been off-loading recycling costs and responsibilities to paper and packaging producers for years.

But what the Ontario government came up with wasn’t built off any of those existing models, according to experts in environmental policy. Instead, critics say, it was a made-in-Ontario mishmash, a unique regime that even some with decades of experience in waste management and environmental consulting have trouble understanding.

“Don’t beat yourself up if you find it confusing. It’s confusing to people who’ve been in the industry for 30 years,” said Denis Goulet, president of Miller Waste Systems, a garbage and recycling company headquartered in Markham.

That confusion could have serious consequences. More than eight months after the regulation was published, industry players are still struggling to build a workable system off the government model. With the transition to the new regime set to begin in less than 16 months, and a provincial election campaign just weeks away, many are worried the various players won’t have enough time to get a functioning system off the ground before the summer of 2023, when the new regime is set to kick in in Toronto before rolling out across the province over the following two and a half years.

That kind of delay could be costly. It would force some municipalities to sign expensive contract extensions with existing suppliers (Toronto has already made provisions to extend its current contracts if necessary) or work out new deals in a tight market already constrained by supply chain backlogs. (The lead time to buy a new garbage and recycling truck, for example, is now somewhere between 18 months and two years, according to industry sources.)

But timetables and deadlines are only part of the story. The larger issue, according to many in the recycling sector, is that they don’t believe the Ford government’s blue box regulation as currently designed will be good for either companies in packaged good industries or for the environment.

The main goal of having a recycling system paid for and run by the companies that produce paper and packaging is simple: to get a better recycling system, one where less packaging ends up in landfills and more raw materials are repurposed and put back into the economy. But that only works, according to both environmentalists and industry experts, if the government lets the market do its job, by setting high standards and then getting out of the way.

Critics charge that the Ford government’s plan does neither. “The government did exactly what we were all fearful of them doing, which has been to be too prescriptive in the process,” said St. Godard.

The regulation sets recycling benchmarks that environmentalists say are far too lax to spur real change and lays out a process that some in the recycling sector believe is much too cumbersome to allow for market innovation to thrive.

“They’ve written a regulation, ostensibly to promote competition, that’s turned into the most anti-competitive recycling regulation I’ve ever seen,” said Usman Valiante, a private sector consultant with almost 30 years of experience in the recycling industry.

As a result, many in the recycling world now fear that Ontario will end up with a blue box system that splits the baby and throws out both halves, one that is neither progressive on environmental issues nor market driven on execution, a result that leaves some wondering why the industry was put through this long and expensive process in the first place.

“I’ve been involved in the waste system for more than 30 years and I’ve never seen anything as f-ed up as this,” said one senior industry official who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about an ongoing, commercially sensitive process. “I think the blue box is going to be a disaster at this point.”

The Star sent a detailed list of questions to Ontario Environment Minister David Piccini about the new blue box regulation, the lobbying that preceded it and the pushback from both industry and environmental groups about the new system. He answered none of them. Instead, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, sent a long statement that read in part:

“We are working to deliver a blue box system that will make recycling easier by standardizing what goes in the blue box and expanding services to more communities across the province … We have made sure we have a process that ensures broad collaboration and brings all parties together in pursuit of the best possible recycling system, and one that will be a North American leader.”

The process that led to Ontario’s current blue box quagmire began decades ago, when the province launched the world’s first curbside recycling program, in Kitchener. The Kitchener trial proved a success and soon blue box programs were spreading across Ontario and the rest of the world.

The bones of the current system were laid down in 2002, when Ontario passed the Waste Diversion Act. Under the rules established that year, companies that produced packaging or printed paper for consumer use had to register with a provincial agency and pay into a fund that subsidized curbside recycling.

For the past 20 years, the foundation of that system has operated more or less unchanged. Today, Ontario municipalities are responsible for operating or contracting out curbside recycling services while the costs of those services are, in theory, split evenly between municipalities and producers. (In practice, the two sides have squabbled endlessly over how to calculate those costs.)

The 50/50 split represented Ontario’s first baby steps toward what’s known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a term coined by Swedish academic Thomas Lindhqvist in 1990. The philosophy behind EPR was that if you made packaging a cost for businesses, not just on the production side but on the disposal and recycling end, too, they would, over time, be incentivized to use less and more ecologically friendly packaging.

“If waste becomes an external cost of doing business, then you would treat that cost just like you would any other,” St. Godard said. “And through the competitive tensions of the marketplace, you would be incented to design better, and you may even — (in a) utopia — design it so that you get that product or package back and integrate it into your own production cycles.”

The current transition takes that idea and pushes it into hyperdrive. In 2016, the then Liberal government introduced the Waste-Free Ontario Act, which aimed to move the province to a full EPR system. The legislation established the principle, already standard in Europe, that producers should be fully responsible, not just for the costs of the curbside recycling system, but also for the operation of the system itself, including contracting, collection and processing.

What the Liberals did not do, however, was lay out exactly how that system was supposed to work in Ontario. Instead, in 2018, they lost to Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives and left the details up to the new government.

How exactly the Ford government came up with its own regulation is still something of a mystery, even to some who have been intimately involved in the blue box process. Most agree, however, that it involved some mix of ideology, influence and ignorance about how recycling policy works in the real world.

Beginning in 2018, producer groups and waste management companies started signing up a who’s who of well-connected lobbyists to push their competing versions of an ideal blue box regime. (“Ontario has very strict lobbying rules, which we take very seriously, and any insinuation otherwise is completely and totally inaccurate,” the ministry said in its statement.)

In return for paying for the system, the producer groups, which include many of the largest consumer-facing companies in the province, had a simple ask: they wanted full control over how it worked.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, wanted the province to set high benchmarks for recycled materials and strict reporting and auditing requirements for producers.

(Those pleas, according to environmentalists and some industry sources, were largely ignored. “This government has completely marginalized the environmental groups,” said another industry source who is still actively involved in the negotiations.)

Waste management companies, meanwhile, wanted a seat at the table and a regime that would allow them to protect their investments and existing infrastructure.

All of that sounds very complicated. And it is. But it’s not unprecedented. Many other jurisdictions have managed the transition to full producer responsibility. There was no need for Ontario to reinvent the wheel. And yet, that’s what the province did.

The new Ontario system laid out in the regulation published last June is unlike any other in the world, according to Duncan Bury, an Ontario consultant who has spent more than 25 years working on EPR. “This is a unique Ontario (he paused here to laugh) special case,” he said. “What they’ve developed is way more complicated than it needs to be, and I think there’s real worries about how this will actually roll out.”

The new regulation created a complex system whereby producers would sign up with competing Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs), which would in turn create rules to divide recycling pickups among themselves geographically across the province and then contract out those pickups to waste management companies, all under a heavily proscriptive regime that ran some 36 printed pages and almost 17,000 words.

The Star spoke to almost a dozen executives and consultants who have worked on every side of this file. Almost to a person they expressed some confusion about the new rules. “This is the most bizarre approach to packaging regulation and EPR we’ve seen,” said St. Godard.

“It’s just so obtuse, you cannot understand what the hell they’re talking about,” added Bury.

It’s also, according to some at least, not particularly rigorous. “Clearly, the targets are not as robust as they should be on plastics, which is a critical issue to everybody,” Bury said. Nor are the reporting requirements strict enough, St. Godard believes.

“The focus has always been around what you do with the waste. There has been very little discussion around what really are the impacts to the environment and health when it comes to having these regulations in place,” said Fe de Leon, a researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association. “That’s, to me, almost like a second-tier discussion.”

Why did the regulation turn out this way? Some blame politics. Multiple sources familiar with the negotiations that led to the published version say they believe that direction on this issue was set at the top level, in the minister’s office, where staff were focused almost exclusively on having a system that had competition between PROs.

One private sector consultant said the government came in with an ideology, but without a real understanding of the complex regulatory and commercial environment at play.

It was that ideology, some believe, rather than a specific outcome, that drove the policy-making process. “The government at the time decided to go out with multiple PROs because they think it created competition,” said Patrick Dovigi, founder and CEO of Green For Life Environmental, Ontario’s largest waste management company. “That was in their mindset. I personally think the mistake that they made is there is no competition at the PRO level. All the multiple PROs dynamic does is create inefficiencies where all the costs really are.”

That government said that the new system has high targets backed by robust data reporting and auditing requirements and that it will encourage innovation and competition. “Ontario will soon be home to a leading blue box service that will better serve the taxpayer, have the highest waste diversion targets in North America, and promote innovations in recycling technologies and use of recycled materials,” the ministry said in its statement.

How soon, though, remains an open question. The regulation established a strict timetable for the creation of the PROs, the signing up of producers and the submission of the final rules. But the process since last June has been anything but smooth.

In July, GFL acquired the Canadian Stewardship Services Alliance (CSSA), a kind of non-profit clearing house on recycling policy founded by and funded by producers. In the same news release announcing the acquisition, Dovigi revealed that GFL was starting its own PRO, the Resource Recovery Alliance (RRA).

That decision sparked a major dispute between Dovigi and the large producers, many of whom believed that there is an inherent conflict in GFL, a waste management company, owning a PRO, which would in turn be contracting out business to waste management companies. (Producers had hoped for a regulation that barred that kind of vertical integration.)

Some also feared that GFL would use its market dominance to undercut other PROs on price and sign up a supermajority of producers which, under the regulation, would allow it to craft new allocation rules for the entire province.

Producers weren’t the only ones worried. “I think you need to be able to have separate church and state,” said St. Godard. “Producers need to be protected so that they have choice in the marketplace. That was the whole point of this. And if you have a monopoly service provider, or one that has a very big dominant position, the buyers of that service may find themselves only having one price-taker effectively.”

But Dovigi thinks all of that was overblown. “From our perspective, there’s no disagreement,” he said. “They think that we are the big bad guys that are going to get in and drive up costs significantly once we control the market. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.”

And if there’s anyone at risk of being bullied in a dispute between GFL and the major producers, Dovigi believes, it’s him. “This is David versus Goliath, right? I’m David. They’re Goliath,” he said. “People are making me out to be the bad guy, but I’m dealing with hundreds of billions of dollars of corporations on the other side and we’re just little GFL from Toronto.”

(GFL, the fourth largest waste management company in North America, and by far the largest in Ontario, has a market cap of $12.3 billion.)

In any case, by late fall it was clear that, for now at least, RRA and GFL didn’t have anywhere close to a majority of producers signed up. Instead, Circular Materials Ontario (CMO), a non-profit PRO owned by producers, seemed to have the edge.

Early in the new year, CMO was prepared to submit its own rules to the province (in collaboration with a third, much smaller PRO, Ryse Solutions, owned by Emterra, another waste management company). But then, everything got turned upside down.

On Jan. 13, the Resource Recovery Alliance, GFL’s wholly owned PRO, sent a letter to the province arguing that the blue box regulation was fatally flawed. The rule-making and allocation provisions were “complex and practically unworkable,” Nicole Willett, RRA’s vice-president, wrote. With the deadline for the rules fast approaching and a provincial election on the horizon, RRA was asking the province to rip open the existing regime and start over with something new.

In February, David Piccini, who became Ontario’s environment minister last June, signalled that he might be open to doing just that. Piccini summoned all three PROs to a private meeting where he announced a new, thinly sketched plan for a mediated consultation between the competing groups.

As of mid-March, that process is ongoing. The different PROs have submitted proposals to the mediator and to accounting firm KPMG and are awaiting direction from the minister with an update expected, according to a source familiar with the timetable, on March 22.

Time, meanwhile, is ticking away. The provincial campaign is expected to start no later than early May, leaving barely a year after the election before the blue box transition is set to begin.

“That’s why we’re nervous when we hear about another process that’s been sparked or led by the ministry,” St. Godard said. “And we don’t really understand why. As unique as this regulation is, the stakeholders have found a way to manage themselves within it. So why the extra process?”

In any case, for all their disputes, GFL and the major producers now agree on this much at least: the existing regulation, the one drawn up last June that so many stakeholders have found so utterly baffling, doesn’t work. They still disagree on the details. But both RRA and CMO have now asked the minister to rewrite the regulation, to reverse the central tenet calling for competing PROs, and to impose a single Producer Responsibility Organization to oversee the entire system.

“It’s just wrong,” said Dovigi. “The regulation needs to be fixed.”

For all the chopping and changing and moving around, one thing about the blue box process in Ontario has remained blissfully the same. As the Ford government scrambles to pump out perhaps the defining environmental policy of its first term, environmental groups say they’re still on the outside looking in. They haven’t been invited to the current round of consultations. They are not being asked to weigh in on any proposed regulatory change.

The new rules, when they are finally ironed out — if they are finally ironed out — will impact what every Ontarian puts in their blue bin. They will govern who picks up those bins, who pays for the system, and how many shopping bags, bottles and coffee cups end up getting recycled in Ontario and how many end up in a landfill. There are few provincial policies that touch so many in the province in such a tangible way. “So I’m not sure why they wouldn’t want to meet with every stakeholder,” said St. Godard.

But what’s remarkable about the reaction to Ontario’s blue box regulation is not that environmental advocates are opposed. Environmentalists have rarely seen eye to eye with the Ford government. It’s that so many other stakeholders, from so many different sectors, have been so put off too.

“It’s the right thing to do, but I’m sad to say, and in fairly typical Ontario fashion, it’s become overly complicated,” said Bury. “And, frankly, it’s a bit of a mess.”

The Daily Star: Deadly yet taken lightly

People in Bangladesh every day inhale an alarming amount of black carbon, a particle not only harmful for human health but also responsible for global warming.

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by The Daily Star (Bangladesh), was published on March 23, 2022.

No monitoring of key air pollutant called black carbon despite its disastrous impacts on human health and environment. 

People in Bangladesh every day inhale an alarming amount of black carbon, a particle not only harmful for human health but also responsible for global warming.

But it is hardly monitored in the country though there is a national action plan in place since 2018. 

Result of incomplete combustion of fossil fuel and biomass, black carbon has the unique property of being able to absorb solar radiation and release it as heat.

It has many damaging consequences upon inhalation, including increased rates of cancer, scarring of the lung tissue and heart damage as it can enter the blood stream via the lungs.

There is no permissible level for black carbon in the air.  In Dhaka, its amount is 10 to 15 microgram per cubic metre, compared to 0.1 to 0.5 microgram per cubic metre in cities of developed countries, Dhaka University Professor Abdus Salam, an air pollution researcher, told The Daily Star recently.

“We find black carbon 8-12 microgram per cubic metre in the country’s air round the year. In winter, it reaches up to 20-25 microgram per cubic metre. It is very alarming for both human health and the environment,” he added.

“If we can control the black carbon emission, we can reduce the air pollution and also at the same time global warming.”

Prof Salam said they found burning of biomass — wood, dried leaves, garbage and agricultural wastes — responsible for 40-42 percent of black carbon emission in Bangladesh. Transportation is responsible for 45 percent and coal burning for the rest.

Black carbon, which does not last long in the atmosphere, is a key component of fine particles, or particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) —  tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two and a half microns or less in width.

Prof Salam said if the PM 2.5 is higher in the air, the amount of black carbon will be higher and the air will be unhealthier. “In Bangladesh, we found that 25-40 percent of PM 2.5 is black carbon.”

Tanvir Ahmed, civil engineering professor at Buet, said black carbon is not routinely monitored in Bangladesh, therefore its concentrations from direct measurements are not available.

But it can be assumed that If PM 2.5 rises, black carbon too goes up proportionately, he added.

Black carbon has a number of disastrous consequences on the environment and climate, as well as affecting the temperature within a city, having knock-on effects on the quality of people’s lives, according to IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company.

“And with large accumulations of this taking place due to its heavy release from factories, brick kilns and automobiles, it would be found in high amounts permeating both the atmosphere and roads across Bangladesh,” it said in its 2021 World Air Quality Report.

The report puts Bangladesh on top among the most polluted countries in terms of air quality while Dhaka on the position of second most polluted capital in the world following New Delhi.

Researchers say the poorer the quality of air is, the more black carbon exists in the environment.

Prof Salam said though black carbon is a major air pollutant, the government has done little to tackle its emission despite embarking on a national action plan.

If it is controlled, the temperature of the country could be reduced by at least one degree Celsius, he also said, recommending immediate measures. 

With the support of Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change conducted baseline assessments of short-lived climate pollutants, including black carbon,  in Bangladesh in 2013.

Following this, the national action plan was adopted in 2018, aiming to reduce black carbon emission by 40 percent by 2030. 

But officials at the Department of Environment (DoE) say they have no mechanism to monitor black carbon — they only can monitor particulate matters PM10 and PM 2.5.

“We had identified the sources and formulated an action plan but due to fund crunch we could not implement it,” said Mirza Shawkat Ali, director (Climate change & International Convention) of DoE.

He, however, said they were trying to implement some of the provisions of the action plan like reducing the traditional brick kilns.

Following a High Court order last year, a detailed guideline was prepared on containing air pollution. “The Department of Environment alone cannot improve the air quality but it requires a comprehensive and coordinated efforts,” he added. 

The Daily Star: Personal Data Protection Law: Door ajar for misuse

The Daily Star logo.

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by The Daily Star (Bangladesh), was published on September 13, 2021.

In a forward-looking move, the government has set out to form a law for personal data protection fashioned on the EU’s momentous General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as it looks to make Bangladesh fit for the digital age.

Like the GDPR, the law would allow citizens the right to know what personal information is being collected, how the data will be used or processed, for how long, and where the data will be kept or moved, according to the draft bill.

But where it diverged from the GDPR is that the certain state agencies like the law enforcement agencies are spared from complying with the law for “functions of the government”. The Daily Star has a copy of the draft law prepared in November last year.

“The problem in the draft law is that it leaves loopholes for the government agencies, which will nullify the whole purpose of the law,” said Md Saimum Reza Talukder, an advocate who specialises in law, privacy and digital technologies.

For example, the law will not be applicable for government agencies building a case against someone under the existing laws of the land.

In other words, someone being prosecuted under any law will not have the right to data protection, meaning the spectre of the contentious Digital Security Act (DSA) — where digital data is the main evidence used — would continue to loom large.

The DSA has been routinely abused to target journalists and muzzle online dissent.

The law is being drafted for data protection, privacy and to control social media, said Mustafa Jabbar, minister of post and telecommunication.

“I want this law,” he said.

The Director General of the Digital Security Agency will be investigating violations, levying fines and ensuring overall compliance — and will be exempted from prosecution along with employees of the Data Protection Office for violations to be considered as “done in good faith”.

“If the DG or Data Protection Office is indemnified against any such prosecution, it contradicts the constitution, which guarantees the fundamental right of equality before the law. This provision cannot be expected in a democratic society,” Talukder said.

As per the proposed act, it will be mandatory for private and public organisations to appoint or designate individuals as data controllers and data protection officers.

The data protection officer is a person appointed by the data controller to make sure that the relevant data protection laws are being followed.

A data controller is defined as the person responsible for collecting or processing (or supervising the processing) of personal data.

For the government, this could be a law enforcement officer; for a non-governmental organisation, it could be the person in charge of supervising beneficiary data or even an IT department.

The DG will have the power to intervene and give mandatory directions to all data controllers and data processors.

The draft contains a provision that will enable the government to officially publish gazettes exempting certain data controllers, or “class of data controllers” from having to follow any provision of the law. With this section, it is completely exempting government agencies, or state forces who are functioning as data controllers.

This coupled with the fact that the DG is indemnified from facing prosecution for such directions takes away checks and balances from the perspective of administrative law and might also hamper institutional autonomy, he said.

“The government’s law enforcement mechanisms never hesitated to weaponise such laws before,” said Faheem Hussain, a tech policy specialist and an associate professor at Arizona State University, who chairs the school’s Global Technology and Development post-graduate programme.

The law gives the citizen the right to know about what kind of data is being collected about them, and whether any data profile is being created, but it exempts cases in which “processing is necessary for functions of the government”.

In another section, the draft law says personal data can only be processed in compliance with the law, but will not be applicable “for compliance with any legal obligation to which the data controller is the subject.”

Another touchy feature of the draft law — which is present in the GDPR — is that foreign organisations with a branch, agency or even a single piece of equipment in Bangladesh will have to comply and fall under the jurisdiction of the DG.

The personal data of Bangladeshi citizens must stay in the country.

The draft says citizens must be notified via written notice about any cross-border transfer of personal data being carried out and that the data controller cannot transfer any personal data to a place outside Bangladesh unless the government gives permission.

This means development partners, foreign NGOs and international human rights organisations as well as foreign banks like Standard Chartered and HSBC will have to localise data within the Bangladesh territory.

This might be problematic, according to Talukder.

“This might also be problematic if the government requires the development partners, INGOs, and international human rights organisations to localise data within Bangladeshi territory. Compliance with other regional and international personal data protection principles will be an issue then,” said Talukder.

Last month, Zunaid Ahmed Palak, state minister for information and communication technology, told The Daily Star that the law is being formulated to ensure that data of the people of Bangladesh stay within the country and that all foreign organisations must comply with it.

“Or else, they will not be allowed to operate in Bangladesh,” he said.

While such an uncompromising stance can work for the EU, it can backfire for Bangladesh — a country in dire need of foreign direct investment and receives a rather modest sum every year.

In 2020, Bangladesh received about $2.6 billion in FDI, down 10.8 percent year-on-year, according to data from the Bangladesh Bank.

Cross-border transfer of data that serve the “strategic interests” of the country however are exempt from this, which begs the question what constitutes as strategic interest.

For a draft that defined in detail terms such as “medical purpose” or “healthcare professional”, there are no definitions given for “strategic interest”, “national security”, or “public interest”.

Contacted, Tarique Barkatullah, director of National Data Centre at Bangladesh Computer Council and one of the authors of the law, said the draft is not final yet.

“We have submitted four drafts so far, and each time they came back with recommendations as the government is vetting the law will very carefully.”

Once the draft bill is finalised, it will be put up for public debate and then changed further.

The provisions for foreign entities might not stay in the final version of the law because the government does not want to impact the FDI flow in any way, he said.

“This provision has been rejected by the higher levels. We do not have the leverage required to make foreign companies comply with this. It is crucial for the country to attract foreign investment.”

Quizzed about the exemptions left for government agencies and whether they will remain in the final draft, he said he was unsure.

“We have observed over 130 laws from across the world, and they all have similar provisions for law enforcement agencies,” he added.

#BehindTheHeadlines: Editor’s letter to Danish journalists shot in Ukraine

Stefan Weichert (left) and Emil Filtenborg in front of their car, which they had to flee in when they were shot. Credit: Emil Filtenborg.

In the build up to World News Day 2022, we will be going #BehindTheHeadlines to highlight stories that have had a significant social impact, and to showcase what newsrooms are doing to better tell the story of their journalism.

This story was originally published by WAN-IFRA (on March 3, 2022).

While on assignment for Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, journalist Stefan Weichert and photographer Emil Filtenborg were shot multiple times inside a car last Saturday. They were in Okhtyrka, a city some 50 kilometres from the Russian border to investigate bomb damage at a kindergarten. While near the frontline their car came under fire from close range, with Weichert being shot once in the shoulder and Filtenborg taking three bullets to the legs.

On Wednesday morning, the journalists took to Twitter to update users on their condition. Weichert wrote that he was on his way home to Denmark to undergo surgery, while Filtenborg posted that he was also going home, and thanked people for their messages of support

The experienced duo had moved to Ukraine three years ago, sensing the Ukraine-Russia story was going to escalate, Knud Brix, Editor-in-Chief of Ekstra Bladet, told the World Editors Forum. They are “tough guys” and had been working as stringers, covering a lot from the separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk for Ekstra Bladet, the Daily Beast and other news organisations.

In mid-February, with tensions rising in Ukraine, and a dramatic increase in demand for the services of freelance journalists, the Ekstra Bladet editor had just days before the Russian invasion, and offered them a contract for their work. With the contract came insurance and organisational support.

Both Weichert and Filtenborg were well versed in safety and security, said Brix, indeed probably more cautious than the protocols advised. Their security measures included a safety network of people in Denmark who were kept advised of their movements via secure mails. “I was in daily contact with them, obviously not trying to direct them, because they had good knowledge of the area and risks, just asking the critical questions,” Brix said.

He was tracking their movements last Saturday and was concerned he had not heard from them. He then “got the call every editor dreads”.

In an open letter published in Ekstra Bladet, Brix shared his concern while praising them for their professionalism and courage. (Translated from Danish into English):

Dear Emil and Stefan,

As I write this, you are in an ambulance in a safe country with no cellular connection. So allow me to write an open letter instead.

Saturday afternoon I got the call that every editor dreads.

I actually already had a bit of a stomach ache because you hadn’t replied to my messages for a couple of hours. Since we hired you at Ekstra Bladet, shortly before Putin attacked Ukraine, you have been extremely professional and sent regular updates on your whereabouts every day.

One of your good friends was on the other end of the line – and in his stream of words I understood that you had been shot. The rest of the conversation is a bit of a blur to me.

But I will never forget when I got you on the phone shortly after, Stefan. In a stoic voice, you explained to me that you didn’t know Emil’s condition, but thought you ‘probably both would survive’.

You told me that, as agreed, you had gone to a kindergarten in the town of Okhtyrka to see if it had been hit by cluster bombs. While sitting in your car, you were shot at from a short distance with heavy calibre weapons and both wounded.

You told me in your witty Jutlandic, Stefan, that you ‘slammed the accelerator’ and fled from the hail of bullets in the smoking car.

You will have to tell the rest of the story in detail when you hopefully soon return safely to Denmark.

Journalists should not drench things in pathos. But allow me to say how incredibly proud we are at Ekstra Bladet of your efforts. You are a shining example of how important it is to cover the war.

You are reporters of the highest calibre. Always calm, never self-promoting Instagram correspondents. You’ve been readers’ eyes and ears on the front lines of a horrific piece of world history. You’ve lived permanently in Ukraine for nearly three years, freelancing for Danish and international media, you speak the language, and you understand war like few others do. Throughout the complicated evacuation from the war zone, you have mustered an unimaginable calm, with a dash of Jutlandic humour and biting sarcasm underneath the hell of pain.

On behalf of the readers of Ekstra Bladet I want to thank you for your courage.

Yours sincerely, Knud

PS. I have the herring sandwich and Brøndum schnapps ready, which was your only wish for when you come to Ekstra Bladet.

Weichert and Filtenborg were lucky to have been on contract for Ekstra Bladet, which afforded them the security and insurance offered by the publishing house JP/Politikens Hus. But the incident highlights the potential danger to journalists reporting from the front line without similar safeguards.

WAN-IFRA and the World Editors Forum have called for journalists on the ground to be offered maximum protections. Additionally, they have published a list of freely available resources for news organisations and reporters to cover the conflict safely and securely.

#BehindTheHeadlines: With journalism in Creole, Mensagem de Lisboa is reaching new audiences

Dino d'Santiago and Karyna Gomes in conversation (Photo Credit: Rita Ansone)

In the build up to World News Day 2022, we will be going #BehindTheHeadlines to highlight stories that have had a significant social impact, and to showcase what newsrooms are doing to better tell the story of their journalism.

This story was originally published by WAN-IFRA.

Mensagem de Lisboa, which was launched last year, has made it its mission to listen to the communities it covers, while also giving a voice to those who are rarely heard.

Since December 2021, the community news site has been putting a particular focus on Lisbon’s Creole community by producing journalistic content in their languages. Some 14,000 Guineans and 25,000 Cape Verdeans live in the Lisbon area (excluding their descendants).

Recognising and honouring the Creole community

“As a hyper local news outlet, our main focus is to integrate all communities in town,” said Catarina Carvalho, founder of Mensagem de Lisboa and former editor of Portugal’s Diário de Notícias. “It’s also a story of recognising and honouring a community that has done so much for the city but has never seen any of its languages acknowledged.”

According to Carvalho, publishing professional journalistic content in Creole was an unprecedented initiative in Portuguese media, and brought Mensagem de Lisboa a lot of attention, including several appearances on TV.

“It had a huge impact, so huge that it even affected our traffic,” she said. “Many people were coming to the website to see what we were doing, even if they weren’t Creole speakers.”

Mensagem de Lisboa launched the project with the help of a grant from NewsSpectrum, and partnered with Dino d’Santiago, one of Portugal’s biggest musicians, who also runs Lisboa Criola, a cultural and journalistic project covering the Creole community in Lisbon.

Managing the editorial workflow

In order to produce content in Creole, they brought on board Karyna Gomes, a musician and journalist of Guinean and Cape Verdean descent.

Gomes takes part in editorial meetings and collaborates closely with the small team at Mensagem de Lisboa. She writes her articles in Creole, and translates them into Portuguese. Editorial staff at Mensagem de Lisboa then edit the Portuguese version of the text, and Gomes implements the changes in her original piece in Creole.

Although the NewsSpectrum grant that has financed the project runs out in March, Gomes will likely continue to cover Lisbon’s Creole community until the end of the year.

As part of her coverage, she has written about the origins and importance of Creole in Lisbon, and spoken to a wide range of different people from the community, giving visibility to a group of people whose stories are otherwise rarely told in Portuguese mainstream media.

“Mensagem’s motto is empathy through knowledge,” Carvalho said.

“We understood that this was needed in Lisbon, as there are so many little ‘Lisbons’ that don’t tend to mix. We have this integration mission, so the Creole project fits perfectly into that.”

#BehindTheHeadlines: Investigating death at a sobering station in Wrocław, Poland

25-year-old Ukrainian Dmytro Nikiforenko died in a Polish sobering station (Photo Credit: supplied).

As part of the build up to World News Day 2022, we are showcasing journalism from around the world that has had significant social impact. Here is the backstory of the investigation that won Gazeta Wyborcza reporter Jacek Harłukowicz Poland’s top prize for journalism in 2021.

This article was originally published by WAN-IFRA.

It’s 10.52 PM when Dmytro Nikiforenko, a 25-year-old man from Ukraine, stops moving. Police officers are still sitting on him, one is hitting him on the head, the other is choking him. Other participants visible on the video footage – two more officers, two employees from the sobering station* and a doctor – are just observing, joking and laughing. When they notice there’s no response from their victim, the doctor checks his pulse. The policeman who was beating him, begins CPR.

But Nikiforenko is already dead.

When Jacek Harłukowicz from Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza saw the footage, recorded by a security camera, he was shocked. He had first heard about the death of the Ukrainian in August, 2021. A police informant wrote to him: “Find out what happened on July 30th in the sobering station in Wrocław. The boy is dead. Heads must roll. If you don’t cover this case, it will be swept under the rug.”

It was a tipoff that led to Harlukowicz uncovering the truth of what happened that night. The investigation won him Poland’s Grand Press Award in the Category for News.

Jacek Harłukowicz receiving the most important journalistic prize in Poland (Photo Credit: Sławomir Kamiński).
Jacek Harłukowicz receiving the most important journalistic prize in Poland (Photo Credit: Sławomir Kamiński).

When first alerted to the story, Harłukowicz remembered a similar incident in May 2016 when police officers hit another young man with a stun gun, also in Wrocław. He died a few hours after he was beaten and strangled at the police station.

Harłukowicz began investigating, but nobody knew anything. Other journalists soon found out about the Ukrainian, but no details were given to the public. An employee from the station tried to persuade the journalists that when Nikiforenko was collected by the officers from the city bus, he was drunk, violent and aggressive. They drove him to the station, strapped him up, and after a while he began to struggle to breathe.

But that’s not what happened.

The last hours of Nikiforenko’s life were on record, captured by a security camera. Footage clearly showed that for the whole time he was calm. “The sobering station employees didn’t see anything inappropriate in the recording when I watched it with them,” said Harlukowicz. “Experienced police officers I talked to were terrified that in the 21st century, in a European country, you could be beaten to death just because you were drunk while riding a bus.”

Two years earlier, the Ukrainian Nikiforenko had travelled to Poland in search of a better life. He came from Niemirów, a small town in the Vinnytsia Oblast in central Ukraine. Nikiforenko chose Wrocław, a popular destination for Ukrainians. He had a job and a fiancée; they were planning a wedding.

“It was outstanding how the family members of Dmytro were treated: until I exposed what actually happened during the arrest, they thought that Dmytro was the one attacking the officers. It was all lies,” said Harłukowicz.

When his report was published, it took only a few hours before police officers were suspended. All the biggest newspapers and websites – both in Poland and Ukraine, e.g. Ukrainian BBC – reported on Harłukowicz’ discovery. Ukrainian ambassador Andrij Deszczyca sent a diplomatic note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking for special coverage of the investigation.

“Today, all the people who were responsible for the death of Dmytro – officers, employees from the station and the doctor – are facing charges,” said Harłukowicz. “But I don’t feel satisfied. Nothing will bring this young man back to life, who came to Poland looking for a better future.”

It was not the last case of police brutality in this region: two more men died in August during or shortly after interventions. Both cases are under investigation now.

Harłukowicz was awarded the most important journalistic prize in Poland – the Grand Press Award in the News category.

“It is always a difficult choice, as this category is one of the most popular,” said juror Aleksandra Sobczak when she was presenting the award. “There were a lot of entries, but we chose the most outstanding of them. I remember as one of the jury members said, that it could win in more than one category – it’s not only a great news piece, it is also an investigation, a report and a story of great social impact.”

Three police officers have been fired. They, together with two station employees, will be prosecuted for the abuse and fatal beating of Nikiforenko. The fourth officer will only face abuse charges. The doctor is accused of risking the loss of life, and three other employees of incitement and false representation of medical records.

*A sobering station is a facility designed to accommodate people who are intoxicated.

Joanna Dzikowska is a journalist and reportage editor at Gazeta Wyborcza.

Singapore’s tallest fish farm to produce 2,700 tonnes of fish a year by 2023

High-rise living is not just for humans in Singapore.

An eight-storey fish farm – the tallest in Singapore and the region – started operations in the first quarter of this year.

The opening of the new facility by homegrown fish farming company Apollo Aquaculture Group comes amid a governmental push to get farmers here to use technology to improve yields.

Singapore wants to meet 30 per cent of its nutritional needs with local produce by 2030 – up from less than 10 per cent today. The goal is to boost food security by improving local production, so it is more resilient to global food supply shocks.

Mr Lucky Phua, senior director for international and corporate development at Apollo Aquaculture Group, said the facility’s first phase of operations will involve farming mainly hybrid grouper and coral trout on the first three storeys of the building. The expected output is up to 1,000 tonnes of fish a year.

This is more than six times the yearly output capacity of 150 tonnes of fish from Apollo’s three-tiered pilot farm in Lim Chu Kang, said Mr Phua.

When all tanks across eight storeys are operational in 2023, the total output capacity would be 2,700 tonnes a year, he added. For context, some 4,707 tonnes of fish were produced in Singapore in 2019.

Apollo’s $65 million fish farming facility looks nothing like the “kelongs” (offshore fish farms) people here usually associate with the rearing of fish.

Painted a bright blue, it appears to be the tallest building in the rural Neo Tiew Crescent area, and would not look out of place in an industrial park elsewhere in the country.

Inside, screens on a wall in an air-conditioned control room showed camera footage of the tanks – some of which now house hybrid grouper fingerlings – while others displayed water parameters such as pH value (a measure of how acidic or basic the water is), temperature and salinity.

Farming fish on land may be more expensive, but it allows for higher productivity because of vertical expansion and also affords farmers greater control over water quality, said Mr Phua. “In the sea, water quality depends on what the currents bring. Temperature and salinity also fluctuate,” he said.

Apollo has developed its own recirculating aquaculture system and equipment so the water can be treated and reused.

Farming in this controlled environment also means the farm can grow fish without the need to use hormones, antibiotics or vaccinations, to prevent diseases, said Mr Phua.

Apollo’s seafood currently costs slightly more than imported varieties. For instance, its hybrid groupers usually sell for between $18 and $28 per kilogram or fish, while the coral trout is sold for between $70 and $90 per kg.

But Mr Phua said costs will come down as production goes up.

He expects the new transformation fund to cover a broader scope than a push for productivity, and hopes there will be greater efforts to increase Singaporeans’ appetite for local produce.

Dr Ritu Bhalla, senior manager at Republic Polytechnic’s Agriculture Research and Innovation Centre, said fish is most economically farmed in natural water bodies, but these options are limited here.

“Farming fish in urban settings like Apollo (is doing) may very well be the way forward for us,” she said. “Being entirely self-contained, it allows for complete control and monitoring of all growth parameters. This can bring benefits like optimised feeding regime to reduce feed, zero pollution to our local water systems, and potentially better produce quality.”

Land-based recirculating aquaculture systems like Apollo’s are more energy intensive, but are highly flexible to meet potential food supply emergencies, provided there are ready sources of fast growing fish fingerlings, she said. “In the interest of diversifying our food sources and enhancing Singapore’s food security, the slight cost premium can possibly be justified in the longer term.”

World News Day Founder: Climate change has long been a political football, but facts are sacred and cannot be bent

A record number of newsrooms across the world have joined this year’s World News Day, a global day of action to promote the importance of fact-based journalism.

This year’s focus is a singular one, climate change. Wherever you are in the world, the climate is changing. Canada, where I live, is a country perhaps best known for ice hockey and the gift of our natural bounty. We possess a third of the world’s fresh water, mountains and three oceans to our west, north and east.

Our giant Prairie farms make Canada a world leader in the production and export of crops such as lentils, beans and chickpeas. Canada exports those crops to more than 120 countries, including refugee camps in the Middle East at cost basis.

But against such luck of geography, new challenges are being thrown up.

In British Columbia, Canada’s most western province, more than 600 people died from heat related illnesses this past summer. In the town of Lytton, B.C., a temperature of 49.6C was recorded. That comes in at 121.3F. This is the highest temperature ever recorded north of 45 degrees latitude.

Newsrooms around the world recognize that the news cycle forces journalists to confront such dramatic moments. That is why more reporters are being hired to focus exclusively on the environment.

Climate change has long been a political football, to be kicked around by different viewpoints. That is as may be, but while everyone is entitled to an opinion, facts are sacred and cannot be bent.

Instead of polarisation, fact-based journalism offers something much more precious. It offers solutions. And that is the intention of World News Day – to showcase our audiences, and what journalism is doing to respond to their demands.

An inherent advantage of quality journalism is that it hears and reports from all sides, including those who deny there is any climate change taking place. Such an exchange creates a market for ideas that provide a key benefit to society’s understandings of the issues that need to be confronted.

More than policymakers so often gripped by short-term domestic challenges, journalism offers the arena for long-term approaches, and for voices, especially the young, who are so moved by their environmental concerns.

The largest act of civil disobedience in Canada’s history is ongoing on Vancouver Island with more than 900 people arrested as protesters, many of them in their twenties, are fighting to protect old growth forest. No trees, no future is one of their slogans. The deep-seated, emotional defence of our land is a powerful force that news pages need to keep on the front pages.

Our reader research tells us that environment coverage is as important as health reporting, even during the global Covid-19 pandemic. It is in the interests of all countries to work together to reduce emissions and support radical industrial changes that will help the entire human race.

That is why journalists in more than 460 newsrooms across six continents have joined in this year’s initiative.

Please join the discussion on this website and on social media at #WorldNewsDay and #JournalismMatters to help us help everyone to make the planet a better place.

David Walmsley is the founder of World News Day, and the editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, Canada.

Covid crisis points to climate challenge ahead

Getting to school as a boy growing up in Singapore in the 1970s could be soggy affair at times.

Tropical downpours overwhelmed drainage systems, leaving parts of the island impassable. Students braved the rains and rising waters, turning up wet and bedraggled, if they made it at all.

Thankfully, this became a thing of the past by the late 1980s. Massive flood alleviation efforts caused this story to recede from newspaper front pages, as a modern city-state emerged.

Yet, decades on, we seem to be heading back to the future.

Severe storms are now becoming more frequent.

The result: last month, pictures and videos of upscale districts in central Singapore inundated hit the headlines again, causing much consternation.

But even as the authorities rushed to unveil plans in response to the public concerns, a minister warned that as intense rainfall was becoming more common with global warming, people might have to get used to flash floods from time to time.

Rising sea levels is an existential issue for this low-lying island, about a third of which is less than 5 metres above the mean sea level. The country’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has estimated that over $100 billion (Singapore dollars) might be needed over the next decades to tackle the rising tides caused by warming seas and melting ice sheets.

But Singapore is not alone. New York City declared a “flash flood emergency” earlier this month after record levels of rain in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

Over 300 people were killed in China’s Henan province in August, when a year’s worth of rain fell in three days, leaving many trapped in underground train carriages and road tunnels, as water levels rose.

Devastating floods in Germany and Belgium, droughts in Brazil, heatwaves in India, Australia, and the Pacific Northwest of the United States, wild fires in California and Canada, as well as across the Mediterranean and Amazon regions  – such extreme weather events, once the stuff of movies, have been playing out across the planet this year.

Get used to it, say the climate scientists, for these are signs of what’s to come.

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chairman Hoesung Lee, summed up the grim scenario this way: “It is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change and making extreme weather more frequent and severe.”

“It also shows that climate change is affecting every region on our planet,” he said, following a UN report in August, dubbed a Code Red warning for humanity and an urgent call to action.

Yet, who can blame a weary world for being distracted, with so many countries still in the grip of a rampaging virus that refuses to yield.

But, as the IPCC’s Dr Lee rightly notes, the Covid-19 pandemic is a “foretaste of what climate change could do to our society, to nature and our lives”.

“Both climate change and Covid-19 have shown us the risks of an unthinking and rapacious approach to nature and its resources.”

Lamentably, while the world’s scientists were quick to step up to the Covid-19 challenge, delivering effective vaccines, efforts to curb the outbreak have been hampered by populist politicians, global inequalities, and a pandemic of misinformation.

Divisions and delays have compounded the challenge: the virus has continued to spread, mutate, and unleash new waves of infections.

The Covid-19 experience has made plain how difficult it will be to forge a global consensus on tackling the climate crisis.

The signs of this looming challenge, and the science behind it, grow clearer by the day. But here too, politics, inequality and misinformation confound concerted action.

This is where professional newsrooms have an important role to play.

And it is why this year’s World News Day on September 28, will focus on the climate crisis.

Some 500 newsrooms from around the world will come together to tell the story of how climate change is already impacting the lives and livelihoods of communities, and how they are grappling with it.

Professional newsrooms, with resources and expertise, are best placed to tell these stories in clear, compelling and credible ways.

One of the best examples of this, in my view, is the recent BBC documentary, The Truth about Climate Change.  In it,  environmentalist David Attenborough sums up the facts and makes the case for action, in his friendly-scientist-you-can-trust way.

“In 4,500 million years, our world has gone through many natural changes. Now, it is changing once again,” he warned.

“But this time, we ourselves are contributing to those changes. We are causing the world to heat up.

“If we continue to behave as we are doing, our children and grandchildren will have to deal with potentially catastrophic changes.

“The vast forests of the Amazon could wither and burn. The oceans could turn acid, destroying much of the life they presently contain.

“The Arctic could be transformed. Its ice could melt and its most famous animals vanish forever.

“Rising tides could cast millions of people adrift. Many of our coastal cities could be flooded, and drowned.”

There is still time to act if the world is to minimise these changes, he adds. But time, that most non-renewable of resources, is running out.

Sir David, 93, has been making such pleas for some time.

Now is the time to hear him, and heed.

Warren Fernandez is Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times, the leading English language news title in Singapore, and President of the World Editors Forum (WEF). 


Aotearoa New Zealand’s braided rivers are internationally significant, but they’ve been systematically strangled, and in some cases, have left behind zombie rivers. As climate change threatens to make the problems worse, some academics and scientists are re-imagining what it means to live with rivers.

By the time it started raining high in the Southern Alps, it was already too late for those downstream.

It had been raining for several days in the headwaters of the Rangitata River, between Christchurch and Timaru, by the evening of December 6, 2019. A sudden downpour overnight brought the highest river levels observed in two decades, and made it inevitable the river would burst its seams. The question was where.

Like other braided rivers in the region, the Rangitata has been heavily modified. Roads, stop banks, and farmland flank its edges; an enormous line of ponds stapled to its side, designed to capture flood waters for irrigation, resemble an artificial second river.

Before human settlement, the river would have simply flooded, forging a new path for itself. But now it was barricaded with stop banks, its floodplain populated by people with lives and property. The river had been narrowed, giving the kinetic energy of the floodwaters little opportunity to disperse; it could only build strength as it barrelled down the plains.

When the floodwaters came, they breached the entrance to what used to be the South Branch of the river.

Long ago, the Rangitata river split in two. The Southern Branch has since dried up, and is now covered in irrigated pasture (the land between the two branches was Rangitata Island, a name which remains).

The floods revived the dead southern branch, which at its peak had more water flowing down it than the main river itself. Some of that water itself broke out, flooding state highway one and cutting off the bottom part of the country for several days. At least two more breaches in the main river added to the flooding.

Flood – Environment Canterbury: Flooding on farmland from the Rangitata river in 2019

From the ground, it would have seemed like chaos; floods of water rampaging over the plains, damaging anything in its path. But from above, a different picture was emerging. Environment Canterbury (ECan) staff were photographing the floods from the air, later stitching together the images to create a mosaic of the event.

It showed the floodwaters were following a predetermined pattern. The flood was itself a river, with twists and braids and tributaries, much like the Rangitata itself.

A zombie river, long ago buried beneath asphalt and housing and irrigators, had been revived.

Over thousands of years, the braided rivers of the Canterbury plains painstakingly sketched the landscape they now occupy.

There are more than 150 braided rivers in Aotearoa New Zealand, almost all of which are in the South Island. Their floodplains alone span around 250,000ha, more than double the size of Auckland City.

Most notable are the braided rivers that formed the Canterbury Plains, the largest area of flat land in the country: The Rakaia, the Rangitata, the Waimakariri, the Waitaki, the Ashley/Rakahuri, and the Waiau.

It is a privileged responsibility, given how few of the world’s rivers are braided. Most rivers, globally speaking, are meandering: They have a single channel, filled with water, that goes from one place to another. Think of the Waikato, the Clutha, the Avon.

Braided rivers are complicated, dynamic, destructive; they are three-dimensional, in that water also flows beneath the river, popping up as springs and wetlands which are periodically destroyed and recreated, as if the braided river system is creating its own universe.

Some say braided rivers are better seen as four-dimensional; they move across time, existing in different shapes and forms on the scale of millennia. Where a river ends now may be dozens of kilometres from where it ended centuries ago.

Several specific factors are required for a river to become braided. One is gradient: They must start at high altitude, tumbling steeply to sea-level over a short distance. They also need a constant supply of rock and sediment, which usually comes from young, rapidly eroding mountain ranges like the Southern Alps which are large enough to create their own weather.

Rain and snow strips the mountains of rock and sediment, as do the massive glaciers that emerge and recede over long time periods, cutting against the mountains, leaving more rock and sediment, all of which is swept downstream towards the coast.

Much of this rock settles on the river beds, forming shingle islands between small, twisting water channels. When it floods, the streams merge into a single channel, carrying the rock and sediment out to sea in a torrent, which is swept back towards the land by the tides to build beaches and protect against coastal flooding.

When the floodwaters recede, the river may have redesigned itself; shifted its islands, created new braids, destroyed old ones. Then the process begins anew.

Central to this process is flooding.

All rivers flood in the right conditions, but for braided rivers, floods are a defining aspect of their physical function.

Braided rivers are more complicated. They are incredibly wide, and contain a series of narrow channels that weave around mounds of rock. Where the river begins and ends is not always clear; they cut into the landscape, forming terraces, which can be indistinguishable from a traditional riverbank.

“The problem with braided rivers, like any other river, is they periodically break their banks,” says Sonny Whitelaw, manager of braided river conservation group BRaid (Braided River aid)​.

“The natural reaction is to say we’re going to put up these barricades to control the river and prevent them from flooding. And of course, the more you confine it, the more you risk flooding, because you’re trying to carry the same amount of water in a much narrower channel.”

We sometimes think of river flooding as abnormal; a departure from regular order, a river’s failure to fulfil its implied promise to neatly channel water from one place to another.

But flooding is a feature, not a bug. Floods create and destroy new habitat, and carry sediment from the mountains to the coasts. The tension comes when people, property, and infrastructure are put in the way, justifying further measures to control the river, which can themselves make the problem worse.

That was evident during the catastrophic Canterbury floods early this month, which caused widespread damage, mostly from braided river flooding.

For many, it was a lucky escape. The flooding was worst in the smaller braided rivers, namely the Ashburton and the Ashley/Rakahuri, largely because their headwaters are in the foothills, which are more influenced by northeasterly rain (the larger braided rivers, with headwaters higher in the mountains, are more influenced by traditional westerly rain).

Some, of course, were not so lucky. Lives and property were damaged; the rivers, unable to be controlled, revived their dead channels, indifferent to what had been built in the interim.

It shows when a braided river floods, even smaller ones, the consequences can be severe. It highlights a fundamental tension: Can humans and braided rivers peacefully co-exist, particularly given the expected impacts of the climate crisis, which, in some ways, will make the rivers more powerful than ever?



When the Waimakariri River north of Christchurch spilled its banks in 1868, it caused significant alarm in the city and its surrounds.

Water flooded much of Christchurch, including Cathedral Square. But the worst damage was done in Kaiapoi, on the northern bank of the river.

Waimakariri – Alden Williams: A wide section of the Waimakariri river.

As detailed by The Press: “Kaiapoi, in spite of all the protective works and cuttings constructed by the inhabitants in the hope of averting the attacks of their dreaded enemy, has, we fear, suffered terribly.”

The language used by the newspaper was instructive.

To some, the Waimakariri is a tupuna, a taonga, a provider of mahinga kai. To the settlers, it was a “dreaded enemy”, something to be protected from.

The settlers were not living with the river; they were at war with it. In some ways, they still are.

Communities have long been built along rivers. Floodplains are fertile, flat, and easy to develop; the rivers themselves can be harnessed as machines for economic growth.

“The first civilisations on our planet emerged in places like Mesopotamia – ‘between the rivers’ – so it’s not a new thing,” says Professor Gary Brierley,​ a river scientist and chair of physical geography at the University of Auckland.

“And just like those ancient civilisations fell over because practices were unsustainable, what we’re doing is unsustainable.”

The problems have become more pronounced as society has moved closer and closer to the rivers, emboldened by the idea they can be controlled.

We can build stop banks to prevent flooding, or capture floodwaters when they get too high; we can funnel rivers down a particular path, take the gravel out of the riverbed, stuff streams and tributaries back into the main channel when they break out.

But some of those practices have undoubtedly made the problem worse, and the costs have become increasingly hard to justify.

In Christchurch, efforts to protect the city from the Waimakariri River are costly. The most recent upgrade of the stop bank system cost around $40m. In 2020, insurers nationwide paid out nearly $170m in flooding-related damage (figures which include surface flooding from rain).

Between 1990 and 2012, around 12,000ha of river margin land in Canterbury was claimed by farmers, an analysis by ECan found. Some of this development has been in the riverbed itself, and has put productive land in the path of river floods and erosion.

Braided rivers have been tapped for water to irrigate farmland, and dammed to generate electricity. The flatlands cleared by the rivers have made way for quarries, housing, landfills and other infrastructure, further justifying engineering solutions to protect against floods.

We drive our cars through the gravel braids to fish introduced species like salmon and trout. Introduced predators feast on threatened native species that live in braided habitat, and exotic weeds and trees choke the river margins, further disrupting the river’s natural flow.

To manage flooding and use land for economic development, braided rivers have been narrowed significantly, which makes them more hydraulically efficient: They carry water faster, with more energy. At the same time, wetlands – a crucial buffer against flooding – have been systematically removed.

With climate change, heavy rainfall events are expected to become more severe, particularly in the headwaters of the major braided rivers. At the same time, drier conditions on the plains could increase reliance on water, particularly for farms, moving us closer to the rivers.

“We’ve got all these factors conspiring to make things more difficult for us, and where we’re at now is only going to be accentuated into the future unless we turn some of these things around,” Brierley says.

“We wanted the convenience of rivers, but at the same time, we wanted to turn our backs to them in terms of a lot of the practices that we undertook.”

Dead channels south of the Waimakariri River show its former path.

It has prompted a new way of thinking among some river scientists. As the relationship between rivers and humanity becomes more fraught, how do we co-exist?

Earlier this year, a group of New Zealand academics and scientists co-authored a piece arguing that rivers were being “strangled”, and actions were required to undo the damage.

It is a concept gaining favour internationally. Experts in the United Kingdom recently argued letting rivers run wild could significantly reduce flooding; In the United States, ageing dams are being systematically dismantled to allow rivers to flow more freely. Attempts to restore the Old Rhine River in Europe by allowing its natural functions to return have had promising results.

There are many names for this practice; rewilding, reanimation, redynamisation, integrated river management, decolonisation. In the simplest terms, it’s letting a river be a river.

It’s an idea that has gained favour in Aotearoa New Zealand over the last five years. It’s not limited to water scientists; a cross-disciplinary group including engineers, ecologists, and geomorphologists have made the argument for letting rivers be rivers.

It can cause questioning of standard practices within their respective disciplines

“There is often a tension between engineering and science,” says Dr Heide Friedrich,✓​ an associate professor of engineering at the University of Auckland.

“In engineering, we want to put everything in boxes – everything needs to go a certain way. Whereas in science, we understand complexity, holistic assessment, and so on.”

Engineers have played a significant role in river management. By one estimate, stop banks in Aotearoa New Zealand span around 5000km, more than double the length of the country itself. They protect many billions of dollars of assets – not to mention lives – from floods.

But the cost is not only financial. Some of the environmental consequences have not been well understood.

After modest rainfall near Franz Josef in 2016, the Waiho River breached a stopbank and took out a hotel. A few years later, the same river flooded again, destroying a bridge which cost $6m to replace.

It comes after a long period of trying to confine the river, but sediment build-up on the river-bed has increased water levels. The solution has been to build the stop banks higher, which is not financially sustainable. One option is to let the river reclaim its floodplain, which has been converted to pasture, or to move Franz Josef township entirely.

Another example, Friedrich says, is floodwater harvesting – taking water from floods that would otherwse flow out to sea to store for irrigation. It is used on the Rangitata River, where floodwaters are stored in enormous ponds beside the river.

While it may seem sensible, floods appear to have a significant role in transferring sediment, both out to sea and on the river-bed itself. Once a sediment regime is altered, it can take decades to reverse, and the impacts can be significant; sediment provides shelter to aquatic life, and builds up coastlines to protect against erosion, a growing problem with climate change.

It’s the sort of problem engineers need to grapple with, Friedrich says. Conventional systems don’t always work.

“In the past, often engineers did a lot of studies, came up with solutions and implemented them. But especially when it comes to water environments, we see there are a lot of unintended consequences,” she says.

“We need to ask critical questions of water processes before we sign off on an engineering solution. Just because there could be an engineering solution doesn’t mean we should use it.”

In one sense, the problem is simple to describe. Humans, particularly since colonial settlement, have operated under the assumption rivers are static, a strategic error that becomes harder to reverse the more time goes on.

“I think the first step is recognising we have created a problem,” says Dr Dan Hikuroa,​ an Earth systems scientist and a senior lecturer in Māori studies at the University of Auckland.

“A river has been a river mai rānō, since forever. We’ve created a problem by building on its banks or nearby, restricting it.”

Hikuroa advocates for a mixture of science and Mātauranga.

River management in Aotearoa New Zealand has been pre-occupied with a river’s component parts; setting acceptable levels for the likes of nitrogen, phosphorus and E. coli, each of which can be independently measured and controlled.

Much of the public (and political) debate about freshwater has centred on “swimmability” – whether rivers can fulfil the recreational needs of humans.

For some river scientists, mātauranga has clarified questions science has been unable to resolve. What if, instead of seeing a river as a machine to be controlled, something that can be deconstructed, we recognised its mauri and accepted it has a fundamental right to be a river?

The two forms of knowledge are not inherently in conflict, and can be complementary. It is an idea, appropriately, informed by the structure of a braided river itself: He awa whiria, two channels weaving and twisting, creating something stronger.

“If you can imagine two strands of knowledge, when you have woven them, they’ll be stronger than those individual strands were on their own,” Hikuroa says.

“Each maintains its own integrity within that new thing, whatever it is.

“It’s not just understanding the role of nitrogen, or phosphorus, or E. coli – Those are discrete pieces of information that are valuable and valid on their own, but make most sense when considered as part of that holistic system. It’s when we go right down on those small parts, as opposed to looking at the whole system, where things can go awry.”

24052021 photo Alden Williams
Water storage ponds on the banks of the Rangitata river.
File generic drone aerial

It is a view that has already moved beyond academia.

Te Awa Tupua, the law granting the Whanganui river legal personhood, recognises such values explicitly: “Te Awa Tupua is an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements,” the law says.

Similar wording is contained in Te Mana o Te Wai, the concept underlying the Government’s freshwater reforms in 2020: In its hierarchy of obligations, the health and well-being of the water comes first, ahead of human and economic needs.

A few years ago, at the Christchurch District Court, a farmer was charged with an unusual offence –building a wall in the Selwyn River.

The Selwyn River is braided over some of its length. Much of its observable span is dry, meaning the course of the river channel – particularly where it starts and ends – can be hard to determine.

What seemed like a standard prosecution would come to have significant ramifications.

The farmer acknowledged building the structure – a bund to protect his land from flooding – without permission, but disputed the claim it was in the riverbed, which would come with a harsher punishment.

He argued the wall was in the floodplain, not the riverbed itself. He was found guilty, but appealed.

The High Court sided with the farmer, as did the Court of Appeal.

It speaks to the confusing way in which rivers are defined. Under the Resource Management Act (RMA), a riverbed is: “[T]he space which the waters of the river cover at its fullest flow without overtopping its banks”.

Neither “fullest flow” nor “banks” are defined. So what does it mean?

In bringing the prosecution, ECan had interpreted it to mean where the river would flow in a one-in-20 or one-in-50 year flooding event, an argument it had successfully used before. Under this definition, a river’s floodplains would be considered part of the river.

The High Court, however, disagreed. It cited a 1905 case regarding the Hutt River, which defined a river in relation to normal seasonal flow. Under this definition, a river does not include its floodplain; it is a static channel. The court’s interpretation stands, radically changing the definition of some riverbed land.

The biggest consequences are for braided rivers, which are, technically speaking, mostly floodplain, and are clearly not static.

The regular flow of water – the channel – is a minor part of a braided river; it’s only after heavy rain, when the water swells and erodes the river’s banks, changing the river’s course, that the river operates how it should.

As other countries move further towards unstrangling their rivers, legally speaking, New Zealand’s are more strangled than ever (the Government has announced an overhaul of the RMA, but it’s unclear if the definition of a riverbed will change).

“Under the RMA, the definition of a braided river isn’t a braided river – it goes right back to this colonial attitude towards a river being just a channel,” says Sonny Whitelaw, of BRaid.

It’s part of a broader problem, she says. How do you define the position of something that constantly moves?

“The question is, what exactly is a braided river? Are we looking at a braided river as it was yesterday, or last year, or last century, or before people arrived?

“This is a conundrum we’ve got. The damn things don’t conveniently stay in one nice to find place – they’re prone, at a moment’s notice, to just sort of pickup and change location.”


If you’ve flown into Christchurch, you may have seen how this happens. Land around the braided rivers are covered in stretch marks.

They are dead channels and streams, left by the Waimakariri River as it shifted north to its current position (thousands of years earlier, the river likely flowed near Te Waihora, south of the city.)

With no intervention, the river would likely shift back, over a long enough time period. With the country’s second-largest city now in the way, protected by 100km of stop banks, that is unlikely to happen.

It is an issue across the lower stretches of every braided river, and the defining challenge for the river reanimation movement.

“We have already encroached on them too much, whether it’s from agriculture, or weeds, or our bridges and roads and wastewater treatment plants, cities, you name it,” Whitelaw says.

“I feel like I struggle with this every day. We either choose to take a holistic view and say okay, we need to withdraw, we need to enable the rivers to act more like living rivers rather than zombie rivers.

“But we need to know that we’re going to sacrifice things to do that, and the question is, who pays for it?”

Mātaraunga shows people can learn to live with rivers. When a flood damaged much of Mātata township in 2005, among the few buildings that weren’t damaged were marae.

The reason was a pūrākau, a narrative applied to the landscape. The river was said to house a taniwha in the form of a lizard, its tail flicking side to side, a sign that people should be cautious.

The story contains a basic geomorphological fact; the lower channel of the river laterally shifts after floods.

It is one reason for optimism. This is a problem that predates everyone alive today; Perhaps two forms of knowledge, braided, can help ease tensions in the long-standing war between humans and rivers.

“It comes from a way of knowing and being that sees you as part of that system, that sees waterways as ancestors, as tupuna, that says we would prefer to treat them like taonga, not as toilets,” Dan Hikuroa says about the move to reanimate rivers.

“That kind of thinking, combined with some cutting edge technical tools where we can be measuring real time E. Coli, nutrient loads, silt loads, rainfall modelling… I think there’s an approach where we can see rivers as more than just a bed, banks, and the water in it, and that’s definitely the way forward for us.”

For Gary Brierley, the river scientist, answers to some pressing questions have been there all along. It’s now time to put the solutions in place.

“A Mataraunga Māori lens is second nature to many groups across the country, and it’s frankly, the direction that we need to be going,” he says.

“To me, it’s an incredible paradox – We have a good idea from science as to where we want to be, and because of the Treaty obligations, if there’s any part of the world where it should be pretty easy to do this, to get on with it, it’s here. And yet we have fallen behind the rest of the world.”


This story, published by Stuff,  has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.