ODT Editorial - The increasing scarcity of water

Summer temperatures are soaring, particularly in the south of the South Island, and the thoughts of New Zealanders turn to water - either for watering summer gardens, having extra showers or taking a swim.

As more of New Zealand's waterways are being tainted by pollution, holiday-makers will be jumping into swimming pools to cool off after a scorching summer's day.

Apart from the active and conscious conservationists among us, the need to conserve water on a hot day is a far-away thought, something many think is best left to other people to worry about.

A report this week indicates Cape Town, home to Table Mountain, African penguins, sunshine and sea, is likely to run out of water as early as March. The crisis has been caused by three years of very low rainfall, coupled with increasing consumption by a growing population.

The local government is racing to address the situation, using desalination plants to make sea-water drinkable, ground water collection projects and water recycling programmes.

That still seems a long way from home for those enjoying summer in New Zealand. The North Island and parts of the West Coast have been flooded with torrential rain. On the east coast of both islands, it has been drier, particularly in Otago where rain has been in short supply. A sign of our hit-and-miss weather is that while parts of Canterbury have had more than 100mm of rain so far this year, much of Otago has had less than 10mm.

It really is time for New Zealand to stop and take stock of what water shortages may mean for this country. Around the world, people have stopped talking about peak oil, replacing the discussion with peak water.

For New Zealanders, concerns about water shortages are often ignored because, for the most part, we get rain, and plenty of it, at the right times of the year.

A search of water shortages in New Zealand shows Auckland and Napier were both concerned about falling supplies last year. The headlines soon after declared the shortage of water was over before it started.

For a large part of the world, access to fresh water is a precious, rare and rapidly diminishing luxury. As the population continues to rise and severe drought grips nations around the world, the planet's water quality and aquifers are being rapidly depleted.

As Auckland continues its rapid growth, increased water usage will eventually become a major issue for ratepayers. Auckland will be best placed to start dealing with the likelihood of water shortages now, before the issue becomes critical.

Irrigation is a major part of farming life in the South Island, and not only for dairy. The Canterbury Plains are covered in long irrigation rigs pumping water from aquifers and spreading it over grass and crops.

Research shows agriculture is the largest user of fresh water at 70%. Agriculture is also a key contributor to water pollution from excess nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants. This is not new news. This is just a fact.

The pressure on Canterbury water reserves is immense.

Industry is responsible for 22% of fresh water use. The largest share of fresh water stored in reservoirs and dams for electricity energy production and irrigation is used for industry. And the average amount of water consumed daily by people in developed countries is 10 times higher than those in developing countries.

The absence of a mechanism to put a price on the real cost of water is seen as a disadvantage in persuading Kiwis to reduce their high use of water.

Lincoln University research says societies have long used prices and markets to ration scarce resources. Water should be no exception.

Already, some parts of New Zealand pay for the use of their domestic water through water meters. In others, the cost of water is included in the rates.

An urgent change of thinking is needed in New Zealand as water use in all forms continues to rise. As a mainly primary industry economy, water will continue to play a major part in agricultural production.

Finding ways to conserve water, to avoid a situation Cape Town may soon face, must become front and centre of policy discussion this year.