Guy Trafford has a look at where the world’s fresh water is situated and how New Zealand is placed. He decides water is our competitive advantage for the future

Guy Trafford has a look at where the world’s fresh water is situated and how New Zealand is placed. He decides water is our competitive advantage for the future

The Government is bringing in new guidelines for providing fresh water access by the end of the year and wants them implemented by mid-2020. For a change the focus does not appear to be on agriculture but is looking at preventing sewerage leaking into and onto waterways, lakes and beaches.

Although given that the drive was at least in part motivated by what happened in Havelock North in 2016 when approximately 5,000 people became ill from contaminated water with sheep faeces being the likely cause, it is likely reducing faecal runoffs from farms will have a part to play.

In New Zealand (contaminations aside) we have an abundance of fresh water and while the quality has been questioned of late, we do by and large take the availability of it for granted. We are one of the few lucky countries who can take water for granted.

Although the planet is largely covered with water with oceans covering approximately 71% of earths surface area, little of it is in a drinkable state. In fact, around 97.4% of total water is in the oceans or in a saline state, leaving 2.6% as fresh. However, much of this is in the form of glaciers and ice caps, in fact over two thirds is, leaving a total of 1.2% of water remaining. It gets even further reduced when the permafrost and ground ice (not glacial) is taken into account and reduces the 1.2% by a further two thirds down to 0.4% of total water.

The blue sphere represents all of Earth's water, and its diameter (distance across) is about 1380 kms (the distance from Auckland to Oamaru). It would have a volume of about 1,386,000,000 cubic kilometers (km3). The sphere includes all the water in the oceans, ice caps, lakes, and rivers, as well as groundwater, atmospheric water, and even the water in you, your dog, and your tomato plant. Source: USGS/Perlman/Woods Hole Oceanograpgic Institution

The only real upside is that much of this is renewable in the form of rain and snow etc, that is except for the fresh water stored in the ancient aquifers which are being rapidly depleted. Happily, this does not apply to New Zealand where the aquifers have a relatively quick recharge rate.

The High Plain aquifer in the USA which includes the Ogallala aquifer has dropped by over 30 metres since records began with no real end sight. While much of this is used for agricultural irrigation much is also required to meet the growing population’s needs. The Ogallala supplies approximately 30% of the ground water used for irrigation in the US and it is estimated it will take 6,000 years to recharge it. At the moment farmers are moving away from ‘water hungry’ crops to ones which require lesser amounts, but generally with lower yields.

A major environmental disaster is what has happened to the Aral Sea (actually a lake) which through water being diverted and overused which has dried up a huge proportion of the lake. It was the fourth largest lake in the world and through the depletion of it water dropped to 10% of its original size. Kazakhstan is leading a programme to try and at least partially restore the lake and fish have been found again there. At one point 2 million hectares were being irrigated either from lake water or water normally flowing into the lake. This area is now greatly reduced.

So, where does this leave New Zealand? Public pressure and common sense dictate that ‘we’ need to be careful about what and how we use our water. But New Zealand is also very fortunately in that it has some very beneficial advantages over other countries when it comes to water. One of them is the fact that we have no land borders with other countries. This means that what water we get we keep (or could) without having to worry about the political ramifications of the down stream effects and likewise we don’t have to worry about the upstream impacts upon rivers etc from other countries. The Mekong River, for instance, flows through six countries and the Nile is influenced by 11.

When looking at freshwater availability (water derived from internal river flows and groundwater from rainfall) New Zealand is ranked as 11th from 180 countries with 72.5 thousand cubic metres per head of capita. This is nearly half of what it used to be in the early 1960’s but the change appears to be driven by the increased population rather than less water.

New Zealand is also in the fortunate position in that being a maritime nation our weather patterns are more regular in bringing moisture from the ocean in the form of rain it is just what direction it comes from that is the difficult part to predict. However, most climatologists are in agreement that with climate change westerlies will become even more predominant dropping rainfall onto the major ranges and alps.

In the meantime, the major countries we trade to are experiencing more unreliable weather patterns, increasing heat and growing populations. All of which are contributing to additional demands on available fresh water for drinking and for agriculture. China for instance has gone from 4.2 thousand cubic metres per capita to 2 thousand by 2014. Even the UK which while not reducing hugely only has about the same as China per head of capita.

Source: World Bank 2016.

What all this means, that while Australia has always considered itself “the lucky country” in fact it is New Zealand which really can lay claim to that title as not only do we have water we also have the climate to magnify our water into a competitive advantage, be it as a source for agriculture or as a means to showcase the environment and ecological values and recreation.

While, much of the domestic debate around water is focused on overuse by agriculture and the impact on water quality, in reality only 2%-3% of the available water in New Zealand is extracted for irrigation.

The debate should be on the how it is used rather than the if it is used.

Other countries natural resources tend to be mined and are totally non-renewable. New Zealand’s biggest natural resource and our greatest competitive advantage is our access to fresh water, which is totally renewable, benign and potentially very profitable. If we manage it correctly.

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Your last sentence "If we manage it correctly" was the only relevant point in the whole waffle.
My understanding is that the govt will be bringing in major freshwater policy as soon as tomorrow and it will be a game changer as long as it is reasonably enforced especially by Econ Canterbury and Southland who seem to believe that laws dont apply to their catchments.

"The root of the issue, as with many of New Zealand's environmental struggles, is dairy farming......"

Dont forget the foreign bottling plants shipping away water with the approval of local councils

Another pre-election pledge that didn't quite turn out to be true.

I don't care so much about what we might earn from taxing foreign water bottlers right now but I do care about the apparent loss of control of that resource - tenants in our own land.

I agree fresh water is all of ours - it makes it even more outrageous that its being sold off so cheaply, turning massive profits for foreign conglomerates

major policy to address the 1% who are stuffing it for the rest of us.


If you hover above the South Island, the brilliant blue of our alpine lakes is breathtaking. But one Canterbury lake stands out instead as diseased, an unnatural bright green colour.

This is the toxic pond that is Canterbury's Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora, New Zealand's fifth largest lake in area. In the region's lacustrine stakes, Lake Ellesmere has become an embarrassment, a very poor relation indeed to the picture-perfect pin-ups of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. Link

5 million Dairy Cows = effluent of 80 million humans. All untreated, put back onto land, which flows into our bountiful waterways...... thanks mate!

Picture is of the Rakaia Gorge bridge: a unique truss system (not-quite-Bollman) and was recently maintained by Opus.

Rakaia has massive flood flows periodically: easily topping 5000 cumecs - whereas normal flow is around the 210 cumecs. Flood flows are harvestable: Lake Coleridge and its power station are fed via a diversion from the Rakaia feeder stream (Wilberforce), plus the Central Plains Water scheme (canals and pipes) harvests normal flows and replaces pumped ground-water systems which (typical!) had been over-allocated (and the take not even metered pre-Commision). Overall, great article, Guy.

Just been to a meeting, we are now required to have resource consent to farm. Surprise surprise intensive irrigators have to be down at max leaching 30 units of N and cannot get below 60.

Hope they have worked those numbers out using the latest Overseer version. Each version that has come out lately seems to automatically increase leach rates, even if all inputs remain the same, in some regions.

1 kg of milksolid = $7
1 kg of lamb = $4
1 kg of log = $3
1 kg of freshwater = $0.1

1 Intel i7 CPU = $1000 per 60 gramm or $20k per kg.

I'd like to see NZ produce something as expensive as CPUs.

We havent invested in the infrastructure and technology to be able to produce these high value goods. Hence, we are still heavily reliant on primary industries and all the pitfalls that they come with

Yep and IMO theres one reason that has caused all our problems. Investing instead in land whether urban or rural and getting the benefits of capital gains. Kiwis are born not with a silver spoon in their mouth but with the inbred knowledge of "...they're not making any more land eh"
And so we are left with dungas in Akl going for +12x income and muddy Southland now having more than a fivefold increase in cows from the 90s as cockies try desperately to get an income from land they paid too much for.
Miss Ardern has done much to make a kiwi proud but her walking away from CGTs left a sour taste for me.

I think NZ needs to find ways of generating wealth other than capital gains - sooner rather than later

Maybe we just need to accept that we only have a beer budget after-all and stop aspiring to be like the equivalent of the Kardashians....

Yes, I think NZ is doing ok, it’s weakness is the politicians get rich quick schemes.

We dont have the population.
Motorola commented if they hired every engineer in New Zealand they would not have enough engineers to operate a semiconductor fabrication plant.

Then maybe we should encourage skilled foreign labour to fill the intellectual shortage rather than unskilled labour that get flogged and underpaid?

Sounds good in principle but we can’t outbid the american universities that have hundreds of millions of dollars in education trusts, and half a billion in research funding.

If we channeled foreign investment into business and R&D instead of real estate, maybe the skilled people would follow

Agree wholeheartedly about churning out high value products, however:

1 cow (lactating) needs 70l of water per day
1 sheep = 4l per day
1 tree..

1kg of avocado $20
1kg of wine $30
1kg bull semen $20k....(Prize Bull)

Average visitor - $3290

So that's roughly $30 per kilo of tourist (assuming an average weight of about 80-85kg). Not bad compared to the other metrics mentioned above.

A useful sidebar on this topic from the ever-provocative Eric Crampton...

Cap-and-trade is argued for: because

Cap-and-trade systems that provide allocations to existing users help ensure a just transition; if the government just abolished existing use rights in favour of either a water tax or nutrient charge, a pile of current users would be bankrupted. Current land prices are predicated on an existing rights and regulatory structure. If you want a system that can withstand a change in government, or its first experience with reality, you need one that can have buy-in from current users.

Nice one.

For $250 to a local council millions of litres get sent offshore along with all the profit.

How much grease would it take on the palms of officials to allow this profit to go to the Foreign evil empire mothership is the question.

"We are one of the few lucky countries who can take water for granted."
Whats wrong with this statement?....therein lies the problem


and this statement is just as silly "in reality only 2%-3% of the available water in New Zealand is extracted for irrigation".

No water shortage here both our tanks are overflowing. Summer was a problem we nearly ran out. Clean water is already a big problem in many parts of the world. It's cheap until you have none then it suddenly becomes priceless.

Might be time to get another tank? Ready for summer!