WELLINGTON - New Zealand's clean, green image took a beating this summer as tourists travelling through the countryside posted pictures of lakes and rivers off limits due to contamination by farm effluent, rubbish and human faeces.
A booming dairy farming industry, along with a surge in tourists seeking unspoiled natural attractions, has taken its toll on the country's environment, heavily marketed as "100 per cent Pure".
Particularly affected is its vast network of once pristine rivers and lakes, which are now some of the most polluted among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, according to some experts.
About 60 per cent of them are unfit for swimming, the Environment Ministry said in a report in 2014. Experts say water quality has deteriorated further since.
In a Colmar Brunton survey conducted last month, 82 per cent of respondents said they were "extremely or very" concerned about the pollution of rivers and lakes, more than any other issue including living costs, child poverty and climate change.
"(New Zealanders) are extremely worried that they are losing their ability to swim, fish and gather food from their rivers, lakes and streams," said Mr Martin Taylor, the chief executive of Fish & Game New Zealand, a non-government agency that commissioned the survey.
"People see those activities as their birthright, but over the last 20 years, that right is being lost because the level of pollution in waterways has increased as farming intensifies."
With an election coming next year, political experts say water pollution could be a key issue for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Ms Ardern led a coalition to power in 2017 promising social reforms and laws to protect the environment, but business confidence has suffered under her government.
More than 13,000 people signed a #toomanycows Greenpeace campaign on Twitter launched last week calling for a ban on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.
"New Zealand already has way too many cows, and synthetic nitrogen is the key driver of the dairy intensification and expansion that leads to the dangerous double whammy of harm to rivers and climate," said Mr Nick Young from Greenpeace.
New Zealand has nearly five million cows, more than its human population of about 4.7 million.
Popular swimming holes near the famed Mount Taranaki in the west of New Zealand's North Island were shut this month due to high E.coli bacteria, an indicator of faecal contamination. Tests are under way to determine the cause, but effluent from nearby dairy farms has been blamed in the past for contaminating these waters.
DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle says dairy farmers have been doing their bit, with 97 per cent of waterways on dairy farms fenced off from cows, and significant work done to establish riparian margins and wetlands.
"The reality is that all types of land use contribute to water quality - and that farming, whether it's vegetables, fruit, beef, sheep, dairy, deer or even wine - must all work together to make sure waterways are protected," Mr Mackle said in a statement.
"The most polluted rivers actually run through urban centres, and this is where the public can do their bit too."
Only about 15 per cent of New Zealand's streams run through dairy farms, he added.
Dairy and tourism directly contribute about 3.5 per cent and 6.1 per cent respectively to New Zealand's US$200 billion (S$271 billion) gross domestic product.
Both industries rely on the country's clean, green image with cascading rivers, unspoiled forests and lush pastures that made it the ideal backdrop for the popular Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie series.
The sparsely populated country is spread over a mountainous area about the size of Britain or California, more than a quarter of which is set aside for reserves and national parks.
Hoards of tourists are expected to arrive in the country next month during the Chinese New Year, a peak travel season, which residents feel will take a further toll on the natural environment. Chinese are the second largest source of tourists to New Zealand after neighbouring Australia, according to 2018 data.
Apart from polluting the water, residents also fear mass tourism and freedom campers may destroy the country's iconic landscape, as seen in places like Venice, Boracay and Bali.
Overcrowding in Venice forced the local administration to restrict access to tourists while Boracay was shut down last year, after mass tourism turned the famed Philippines island into a "cesspool".
Mr Richard Davies, tourism policy manager at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, said the increase in the number of campers has caused problems in some areas, waste being one of them.
"We have a collective duty to care for our environment and for New Zealand, and there have been a number of initiatives to help educate local and international campers on how to camp responsibility, and funding for infrastructure to help local bodies to address the issues that can arise," he said.
Mr Mike Joy, a senior researcher at Victoria University of Wellington's Institute for Governance and Policy Studies says the environment is paying the price for hands-off governance and the intensification of dairy and tourism industries.
"It's an own goal… they are shooting themselves in the foot. The biggest value add this country can have is its clean, green image and they are just ruining that image," he said.
The government has said it is committed to improving water quality. In 2017, it set a national target of making 90 per cent of New Zealand's large rivers and lakes swimmable by 2040, with an interim target of 80 per cent swimmable by 2030.
Mr Joy, who is a member of some government working groups, said change will happen only if governments take on the powerful dairy and tourism industries.
"Right now, a lot more money is spent on spin and propaganda but there's been very little change."