A “diddly squat” and the “really chunky hard part”

bottled water web

The recent Radio NZ interview with Environment Minister Nick Smith offered some interesting insights into the current government’s view and approach to the management of water.

Many argue that water is the most valuable and contestable natural resource of the 21st century. According to the United Nations, forty-one countries experienced water stress in 2011; ten of them are close to depleting their supply of renewable freshwater and must now rely on non-conventional sources. By 2050, at least one in four people worldwide are likely to be affected by recurring water shortages.

New Zealand is blessed with rich water resources, some 500 trillion litres of it flowing through our lakes, rivers and aquifers. Yet not every region is as ‘rich’, and even the ‘rich’ regions can be ‘poor’ at times.

In the interview, the Minister was adamant on two points:

  • No one owns water
  • No price will be put on water

The Minister stated that the government “accepts the view of the Waitangi Tribunal that Maori do have right and interests in water, exactly in the same way as do other New Zealanders…” Although resource consents give large scale irrigation (6 trillion litres nationwide), municipal usage and industry the rights to take water, they do not imply ownerships. Currently municipal usage and industry take about 2 trillion litres each. The concept of royalties or a price on water are also ruled out. Where residents pay a water bill, whether as part of council rates or not, they are paying for the costs of managing the water resource, not for the water itself.

When asked about the issue of bottled water companies taking water and selling it overseas for profits, the Minister described it as “a non-event” as the amount of water taken was “diddly squat”.  In other words, it’s too insignificant to bother with.  Later on in the interview, the Minister argued against putting a price on water again, but using the fact that each litre of milk requires 400 litres of water to produce and the serious threat of a water price on the dairy industry.  In other words, it’s too big to deal with.

What few people talk about is that water quantity and quality issues are intertwined and can aggravate each other. Agriculture and industries take precious water on one hand and discharge pollutants into water on the other hand, degrading the previously clean water, sometimes making it unusable. So we may have a “huge natural resource” to start with, and “we only use about 2 percent” of it at the moment, but it doesn’t mean that we will always have plenty. Not yet mentioned are the amounts needed for healthy environmental flows and the impending impacts of climate change.

The Minister was eager to highlight NZ’s “humongous progress” in reducing point source pollution – a reduction of 90% over the last 25 years. While there might have been great progress overall, Taranaki is still plagued by toxic pollutants in many local areas such as the sewage outfall at Waitara, nitrate leaching from Taranaki By-Products at Okaiawa, ammonia and nitrate plumes in the groundwater at the Ballance Agri-nutrients plant in Kapuni, the elevated salinity and trace benzene in the groundwater at the BTW Wellington landfarm in Waitara and the unknown contaminants from numerous oil and gas sites with discharge consents across Taranaki.

Nevertheless, it is fair for the Minister to emphasize the problems of non-point source discharge, notably from intensified farming, and that the “really chunky hard part” or the “crux of the water quality debate” is getting regional councils to “practically set the limits around nutrients“.

In Climate Justice Taranaki’s submission on the government’s Next Step for Freshwater, we insist on a “swimmable” national bottom line, support stock exclusion from water bodies, emphasize the need for meaningful engagement with Maori and ‘safety net’ for hapu and iwi, call for caps on nutrients and dairy conversion, ban on all contaminant discharge from oil and gas activities into water, and diversion of government irrigation investments into protecting and restoring freshwater ecosystems, etc.  Please read our submission here.


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