Cultural health index for freshwater bodies

  • Image, Cultural health index.

    The cultural health index (CHI) is a national tool that measures factors of cultural importance to Māori in the freshwater environment. The CHI supports tangata whenua (Māori indigenous people connected to a tribal area in New Zealand) in capturing and recording the cultural health status of a waterway site based on local indigenous knowledge. It provides an opportunity for water managers to incorporate Māori perspectives and values for stream health in management decisions. Three components make up the overall CHI score: site status, mahinga kai (customary food gathering) status, and cultural water quality.

    We classified Cultural health index for freshwater bodies as a case study.

    Key findings

    Cultural health index scores for waterways were very good or good at 11 sites, moderate at 21 sites, and poor or very poor at 9 sites, of 41 sites tested between 2005 and 2016. 

    • Of 34 sites tested, 27 sites had a traditional connection with tangata whenua (iwi/hapū), who said they are likely to return to 31 of the tested sites for customary use (traditional and non-traditional). 
    • Of 39 sites, mahinga kai status were poor or very poor at 28 sites, moderate at 7 sites, and good or very good at 4 sites. 
    • Of 38 sites, cultural stream health was poor or very poor at 24 sites, moderate at 12 sites, and good at 2 sites. No sites had a status of very good.

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    Definition and methodology

    The cultural health index (CHI) is a national tool used to assess the health and mauri (life force) of a waterway to monitor changes to it over time.

    The CHI was developed over the 15-year period 1992–2006 and tested by several tangata whenua at sites in streams throughout New Zealand (Tipa & Teirney, 2006) (tangata whenua are also using this tool in rivers and lakes.) The CHI assesses a site’s accessibility, its ability to undertake mahinga kai activities, and cultural stream health. A CHI score cannot be calculated without local indigenous knowledge. The CHI can be used by water managers to incorporate Māori perspectives and values for freshwater health in management decisions.

    The CHI is based on three factors:

    • site status: the association tangata whenua have with a site, and whether they would return to it
    • mahinga kai status: rating on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 very poor to 5 very good) for a range of species present and abundant
    • cultural stream health: rating on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 very poor to 5 very good) for water quality and land–use, based on factors such as water clarity and quality, flow, riparian margin and vegetation, river bed condition, habitat variety and channel modification.

    To assess the cultural health of waterways, tangata whenua apply the standard interview questions and calculation tables included in Using the cultural health index (2006). The CHI is one of a range of freshwater assessment tools used by tangata whenua across the country to collect culturally relevant data on waterways.

    Baseline cultural health index scores were collated and reported for 42 sites across New Zealand where data and grid references for mapping purposes are publicly available (Te Arawa Lakes Trust, 2016; Waikato River Authority, 2016; Tipa, 2015; Pauling, 2007; Young et al, 2008; Tipa & Tierney, 2006). Forty-one sites had overall CHI scores, 39 sites had mahinga kai scores, 38 had cultural stream health status ratings, and 34 sites had site-status ratings. Not all sites have ratings for all the indexes as not all tangata whenua who used this tool collected or reported all the information.

    We have CHI scores for 30 waterways, with 25 rivers and five lakes represented. Some waterways have a higher number of CHI site scores because more than one site was assessed along a waterway. The number of sites with CHI scores was determined by the iwi/hapū groups that collected and reported the information. 

    Data quality 

    Topic Classification   Relevance Accuracy 
     Mātauranga Māori, tikanga Māori, and kaitiakitanga  Case study

     Image, Partial relevance.


     Image, Medium accuracy.


    See Data quality information for more detail.


    Pauling, C (2007). State of the Takiwa – Nga Wai Pounanu/Te Waipounamu Freshwater Report 2007: Cultural Health Assessment of South Island Waterways. Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Mahaanui Kurataiao Ltd Report. Retrieved from

    Te Arawa Lakes Trust (2016). Te Arawa Lakes Trust cultural monitoring datasheet 2016. Retrieved from

    Tipa, G, & Teirney, L (2006). Using the Cultural Health Index: How to assess the health of streams and waterways. Ministry for the Environment. ME 711. Retrieved from

    Tipa, G, Home, M, & Nelson, K (2015). Reporting the results of cultural assessments – from site assessments to catchment wide reporting. A report for the Ministry for the Environment. Retrieved from

    Waikato River Authority (2016). Report card: The Waikato and Waipa River (PDF, 5.8MB). Retrieved from

    Young, RG, Harmsworth, GR, Walker, D, & James, T (2008). Linkages between cultural and scientific indicators of river and stream health. Motueka Integrated Catchment Management (Motueka ICM) Programme Report. Prepared for Stakeholders of the Motueka Integrated Catchment Management Programme. Retrieved from


    Published 27 April 2017

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