Newsroom - Rod Oram: A trickle of policies for a big problem

The vast complexities of water boil down to a simple critical equation: more use + less quality = angry voters.

And they're getting angrier by the day. Businesses must start paying for the water they use, 70 percent of the respondents said in a recent New Zealand Herald poll.

No we can't pay, say farmers. We're already paying to extract, store and distribute water to our farms. We can't afford to charge for the water itself.

Labour is suggesting a water royalty of two cents per cubic metre. By comparison, irrigators' costs averaged 14 cents per cubic metre, according to Irrigation New Zealand.

Farmers account for almost 80 percent of the nation's water use (excluding hydro generators, which return almost all the water they use to the rivers.)

No we can't charge, says the National-led Government. Doing so would open up fraught water ownership issues in Treaty negotiations. Anyway, we've got lots of other policies and programmes for cleaning up water, and a working party on water allocation is considering some pricing measures.

But the wisdom of the crowd is correct. Our current water policies and practices are working badly. Pricing is a key option among many for putting them right.

The OECD offered a deeply researched and forcefully argued version of that diagnosis and remedy in March in its once-in-a-decade environmental review of New Zealand. The water chapter accounted for 48 of the report's 251 pages.

Simon Upton, head of the OECD’s environment directorate, delivered the verdict to the government, which includes some of his old colleagues from the early 1990s when as National’s Environment Minister he brought the Resource Management Act to the statue books. He returns home next month to become our next Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

The slides, summary and full document are available here. The slides are a particularly succinct summary of our enormous environmental challenges, and a guide to the ways we can tackle them and the benefits we’ll derive from doing so.

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