16 Apr 2015

Water decisions 'catastrophic' for Māori

7:46 am on 16 April 2015

A lawyer representing Māori in water rights cases says much of the blame for the controversy over freshwater rights rest squarely on the shoulders of local government.

Felix Geiringer, barrister

Felix Geiringer, barrister Photo: Supplied

Felix Geiringer said decisions by local authorities over water allocations have been terrible for New Zealand, but catastrophic for Maori.

Iwi leaders and the Government have agreed on a deadline to resolve freshwater rights by Waitangi Day 2016.

The Prime Minister John Key has been clear that the Government believed that nobody owns water and it was not going to change its mind.

But Mr Geiringer said there had been too much emotive talk and little research done into what any changes to water rights might actually mean.

"This debate is inevitably going to be highly charged and a lot more to do with people's emotions and prejudices than it is reality and fact."

He said local government had to shoulder much of the blame for not sharing the resource fairly and had mismanaged freshwater, causing widespread pollution and environmental damage.

"Regional councils have really been the problem: what happened in the 1960s is that all of the decisions over water use were taken away from whoever had them, who were typically the people who were sitting next to the rivers, and they were given over to regional councils, precursors of our current councils.

"It developed the situation we have now under the Resource Management Act.

"The water decisions that have been made locally around the country have been catastrophic for Māori, but they've been terrible for New Zealand."

Mr Geiringer rejected concerns by Federated Farmers that settling Māori grievances around water would create new ones and said they should be reassured rather than threatened.

"What's being suggested, and it's only to an extremely limited degree, is that there are substantial rights to water that can be traded and be profited from.

"What will happen is that that water will be used by whoever is able to make best use of it, and if Federated Farmers are able to make best use of it they'll continue to use it, but they might not use it for free anymore."

The Freshwater Iwi Leaders Group held a hui on the issue in Wellington on Wednesday.

Its spokesperson, Willie Te Aho, agreed that local government should devolve some of its power to mana whenua, but said that hadn't happened.

"Regrettably there's been the power within the Resource Management Act to do that now, so we have Section 33 of the RMA which actually allows a council to delegatre its powers to a group, that hasn't been done.

"What we've been clearly indicating since 1991 is that our hapu, our iwi, are well-placed to actually take those powers and administer those powers, whether it be in relation to consenting, whether it be in the allocation of freshwater."

The Freshwater Iwi Leaders Group is holding hui around the motu, which wrap up at the end of next week.

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