Toby & Toby on... the New Zealand water battles

5:30 pm on 27 April 2016

Water battles! As in full-blown warfare sort of thing?

Water is a major factor in armed conflicts, internal and cross-border, around the world, but as far as New Zealand is concerned there isn't any imminent sign of armed combat.

What then?

Numerous issues around fresh water are floating to the surface.

Nice one. A raft of concerns?

Precisely. Debates have bubbled along for some time around farmland irrigation and water scarcity, the pollution of waterways, tourism priorities, and iwi water rights and interests. The most recent war - of words - however, concerns the export of bottled New Zealand water.

What about it?

There are apparently bottling plants across New Zealand, none of which pays more than a minimal fee to regional councils to cover consent application costs under the Resource Management Act. The recent sale of a swathe of land in Ashburton, where a private company will gain the right to extract 1.4 billion litres of artesian water each year from town aquifers for the next three decades, has led to protests, while it has since emerged that the Chinese company Oravida is entitled to draw up to 400,000 litres of water a day from the Otakiri aquifer until 2026, to bottle and export to China, where the market for bottled water is surging.

What is Oravida paying?

It is paying $526 a year to the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.

Have a zero or three washed off that sum?

Nope. It's $526. For up to 146 million litres a year.

What's that per litre?

Less than 0.000004 of a dollar. Or, to put it another way, they get 2,750 litres for every cent.

Sweet deal. What are opponents saying?

The Greens are calling for a moratorium on new consents for bottling plants, while NZ First are demanding a royalty on exports.

What does the government say?

Environment Minister Nick Smith has rebuked opposition parties for "targeting one industry on the basis of misinformation and politics"; what, he asks, about exporters of juice, which of course is predominantly made up of water, or dairy farmers, who go through an estimated 400 litres of water to produce every litre of milk.

Moreover, says Smith, "New Zealand has 500 trillion litres of fresh water each year flowing through our lakes, rivers and aquifers, and we extract only two percent of that for human purposes. Ten trillion litres are extracted, made up of 6 trillion for irrigation, 2 trillion for town water supplies, and 2 trillion for industries. The total water extracted for bottled water is only 0.004 per cent of the resource."

A veritable drop in the ocean.

No, we're talking about fresh water.

Forget it, Nick. This is Chinatown.

Pardon?

Nothing. He's got a point, hasn't he?

He does. But the sight of millions of litres of New Zealand water being extracted by a foreign company for export, in effect for free, is probably the most vivid and immediately comprehensible image in a convoluted debate. To borrow a favourite phrase of political reportage, it's a bad look.

Is the government doing anything to address water use?

Yup. It recently published a consultation document Next Steps for Fresh Water, addressing how to "better manage water quality and improve efficiency of use" and "deliver better environmental and economic outcomes and better outcomes for iwi".

Most of the recommendations are based on ideas that emerged out of the cross-sector Land and Water Forum albeit many of them in a diluted form.

Diluted. Nice.

Cheers.

Did the consultation have anything to say about farm animals shitting in rivers?

A national instant fine regime is proposed for stock in waterways: $100 per animal up to a maximum of $2000.

So we can start swimming in rivers again?

Nick Smith has rejected the demand of a recent hikoi and petition, that all rivers and lakes should be swimmable, saying such a goal is impractical. The consultation document offers vague aspirations for improvement, and lays down as a "bottom line" not letting the situation become worse.

How has the consultation document been received?

A mix. The chair of the Land and Water Forum, the esteemed diplomat Alistair Bisley, has criticised it as inadequate, particularly in failing to deal with the prickly issue of how to allocate scarce water resources.

The Tourism Industry Association criticised what it saw as the "lack of a clear national vision, plan and corresponding implementation guidance".

The government is also swimming against a torrent of advice that a price should be put on water. The prime minister has long repeated that "no one owns water", which on the surface appears to rule out the idea, but "talking about pricing water can get muddled with talking about the ownership of water," said the parliamentary commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, in her submission in which she suggested pricing was the obvious mechanism by which to deal with scarcity.

The Environment Defence Society meanwhile, which called for a pricing tool in its submission, said, "It is important that people understand that pricing does not relate to ownership but puts a charge on using a public resource for private gain. The revenue from the charge should go directly into the Fresh Water Improvement Fund to accelerate clean-up efforts."

Among the opponents of pricing are Federated Farmers.

What might make the government reluctant to go down that road?

Given the state of farming - with many already imperilled by low milk prices - adding a cost is hardly politically palatable.

It would also make it impossible to avoid the question of Māori water rights - a seriously hot political kumara, as evidenced by the recent re-emergence of the wildly innovative Kiwi/Iwi slogan.

The water consultation document encourages, in Smith's words, "improved processes for iwi to be involved in the development of council water plans and water conservation orders", but does not address many of the proposals put forward by the Freshwater Iwi Leaders Group, including the core issue of Māori water rights.

Some National backbenchers are reportedly becoming anxious about Nick Smith's handling of the fresh water issue following Don Brash and Winston Peters' interventions.

Boil it down to 25 words.

Despite government efforts to dampen the issue, a flood of headlines has given the water debate a head of steam. Downstream, a pricing mechanism beckons.

And in five?

It's water pistols at dawn.

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* This column is part of a weekly series published every Wednesday, by graphic artist Toby Morris and journalist Toby Manhire.