ODT - The water debate: what's it really about?

The present water debate is politically motivated, Muriel Newman writes.

Fresh water is an election issue. The export of bottled water has become the focus of an emotional debate that is being relentlessly politicised and propagandised.

Commercial water bottlers have been demonised as exploitative — extracting vast amounts of our scarce natural water without payment and without adding any benefit to New Zealand.

The facts show otherwise.

According to the Minister for the Environment, New Zealand has plentiful fresh water supplies; an average of 2.3m of rain falls nationwide each year.

This equates to 145 million litres per person per year — seven times as much per person as Australia, 16 times as much as the US, and 70 times as much as the UK or China.

Of the 600 trillion litres or so of water that flows through New Zealand’s lakes, rivers and aquifers annually, only 11 trillion litres — about 2% — is extracted.

Of the water that is extracted, about six trillion litres is used for irrigation, two and a-half trillion for industry, two trillion for local authority supplies, and half a trillion for livestock.

There are more than 20,000 water permits on issue throughout the country.

Of those, 41 are for the bottling of fresh water, and 30 are for multiple purposes including water bottling.

Only 23 water bottling permits are said to be currently in use.

Last year, bottled water exports accounted for only nine million litres — 0.0001% of New Zealand’s total annual fresh water use.

While water is, of course, a major component of many other exports — each litre of wine exported is said to have used 200 litres in its production and each litre of milk, 250 litres of water — in comparison, it only takes a litre of water to produce a litre of bottled water for export.

Like any other business, water bottling companies also contribute to the economy through processing, packaging, transport, employment, rates and so on.

But none of that gets mentioned in this debate.

Since fresh water falls naturally as rain and snow and is essential for life, it is regarded in law as a public good resource that must be available to all.

Accordingly, under common law and statute, all New Zealand’s fresh water is vested in the Crown and cannot be privately owned.

That means while landowners may have rights to the beds and banks of the rivers, streams and lakes that lie on their properties, they don’t
own the water.

Water users can be charged for permits to take water, and councils can charge households and businesses for providing water — either through rates or by volume — with a fee that covers the cost of filtering, pumping, piping and treating the water supplies.

While the statutory responsibility for allocating and controlling fresh water rests with the Crown, that duty was passed to regional councils and unitary authorities through the 1991 Resource Management Act.

The reality is the present water debate is politically motivated.

New Zealanders are being manipulated by activist groups to introduce a tax on the commercial use of water — a move that suits Maori interests, since any charge on water will open the door to new taxpayer-funded Treaty settlements and water royalties in perpetuity.

At the heart of this debate is Maori rights to own and control of fresh water.

Former prime minister Helen Clark understood this only too well when, in 2006, iwi leaders, believing Labour was planning to introduce a charge on water, demanded a Treaty settlement.

They considered if a property right was being created, they had a claim to it under the Treaty of Waitangi — similar to the situation in 1986, when fishing quotas created property rights and they received a $170million fisheries settlement.

With the Ministry for the Environment estimating the value of New Zealand’s fresh water resource to be more than $35billion a year, it’s not difficult to see what’s driving iwi demands.

To her credit, Clark unilaterally rejected the demands of iwi leaders, upholding the strong position taken by successive governments, that water is controlled and managed by the Crown for all New Zealanders.

However, under Jacinda Ardern’s leadership, Labour’s principled stand against Maori claims for the ownership of water has been sidelined, and if she were in Government, the Treaty of Waitangi gravy train would start up again.

Labour would introduce a charge — to be determined after the election — on water bottlers and other commercial users of water, with royalties shared between regional councils and Maori.

Householders will foot the bill through higher prices for food and anything produced using water.

The Greens are also refusing to reveal the level of their proposed water tax on commercial users until after the election, although they have specified water bottlers will pay a 10c/litre royalty on domestic sales and another 10c/litre on exports.

Half of all royalties collected would be paid to Maori as: ‘‘The Waitangi Tribunal has found on numerous occasions that Maori did not cede sovereignty of natural resources through the Treaty of Waitangi.’’

The Greens also plan RMA amendments to enable greater involvement by Maori in council decisions around water.

National’s approach to fresh water policy is reflected in the updated National Policy Statement on Freshwater that elevates Maori spiritualism and rights over water to new levels through statutory obligations imposed on local councils.

Essentially, National has been working with the Iwi Leaders Group on water policy since 2012, when its partial privatisation of state-owned power companies triggered an urgent claim to the Waitangi Tribunal for the ownership of water.

Over the years, iwi demands have changed from ownership to control of fresh water — along with royalties in perpetuity.

National ceded to iwi demands when it introduced provisions that will be used to effect Maori control of fresh water into the RMA, without public consultation.

Once National’s Technical Advisory Group — established in collaboration with iwi leaders — reports back its water allocation policy proposals after the election, Maori will be elevated to co-govern and control fresh water decision-making, in conjunction with councils.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters says it is opposed to race-based policies, but its website shows contradictions about Maori rights to and, governance of, water.

The website is also silent on the consequences of the Maori claim that would be triggered by the party’s plan to introduce a royalty on fresh water exports.

With Act pushing for tradeable water rights — irrespective of any consequential Treaty claim — and the Maori Party in favour of Maori ownership and control of fresh water, it seems that going into the 2017 general election New Zealanders who want decisions over the allocation of fresh water to remain in the hands of democratically elected councillors — rather than vested interest Maori groups — have no champions in Parliament.

What an unacceptable state of affairs this is for our democracy.

●Dr Muriel Newman is a former Act party deputy leader and the founder and director of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, a public policy think-tank. The full version of this article is on the centre’s website, www.nzcpr.com