Opinion: To take advantage of water as a unique strategic asset, one that could power our economy and make us less dependent on fossil fuels, we are going to have to build and pay to reap those advantages

Opinion: To take advantage of water as a unique strategic asset, one that could power our economy and make us less dependent on fossil fuels, we are going to have to build and pay to reap those advantages

New Zealanders have a natural affinity with our water. Whether that be swimming at the beach in the beautiful Bay of Plenty, kayaking on a West Coast river, or pulling in a snapper on the Hauraki Gulf to take home for the family dinner.

There is no argument that kiwis want clean and healthy waterways where we can swim, surf and fish. Nobody wants to see plastic in our oceans, polluted rivers or septic beaches that are unable to be used – yet these issues continue to prevail and in some cases are getting worse. The challenge is that while we all agree on the ultimate goal of improving water quality, there is disagreement on what needs to be done to achieve it, the pace and scale of change required, and whether we are open to storing more of it to assist.  

The simple truth is that while everyone says they want clean water; many envisage it as being ‘someone else’ that needs to change their behaviour or spend the money to achieve the goal.

Our country’s reality is that we all need to play a role in the solution. We desperately need to shift the national dialogue away from one of blame and scapegoating to something more conducive to addressing the complex challenges we are facing.

First up, let’s celebrate the good work farmers are doing. There is an ongoing lament that our rural communities are largely to blame for the degradation of our waterways and if only they would do something about it, the issue would be sorted. The Government’s Essential Freshwater package was almost entirely framed as a rural NZ issue as well.

This is a simplistic interpretation of the state of our waterways and doesn’t give credit to the huge amount of work that has been occurring on-farm over the last decade.

I accept historical farming practices caused significant degradation of our rural waterways, and farmers were not fully aware of the damage their practices were causing. Indeed only a generation ago, putting a dairy shed close to the creek was seen as sensible, and the resulting effluent run off helped grow good sized eels that the local kids would haul out of the stream.

As farmers became more aware of their collective impact, they took steps to reduce it with significant investments in upgrading effluent systems, riparian planting and fencing off waterways. There is still more to be done but they have had huge success – we cannot expect farmers to undo the unwitting damage of successive generations in one. Moreover, it is bloody tough driving for constant improvement when all you hear is how bad farming is on the environment.

Can urban New Zealand say they have wholeheartedly embraced change in the same way?    Only last week Wellington’s failing wastewater network was draining raw sewage at a rate of 100 litres per second directly into the harbour – and Wellington’s experience is not unique. Every year around two billion litres of sewage-inflicted water ends up in Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour. That’s just under 5.5 million litres every day – or 63 litres every single second.

These issues haven’t arisen over night. They’ve been coming through the pipeline – for lack of a better term – for decades. Our country’s population has grown well ahead of our antiquated infrastructure which is now groaning under the pressures of population growth and urban sprawl. Councils know they need to spend money to improve it, but increasingly come under pressure from ratepayers to put off upgrades and repairs to keep rates low. Think back to the October local elections, can you recall anyone standing in your local town saying ‘vote for me, I’ll put your rates up but the water quality will be better’. On the off chance you can, I bet they didn’t win!

The coming decades of water infrastructure investment will be hugely expensive and the cost will be borne by all of us – rich or poor, urban or rural. Relatively cheap wins on farm are now hard to come by and our failing urban storm and wastewater systems will need urgent repairs and upgrades that come will a price tag in the billions. Overlay impacts of climate change, and in my view, water becomes one of those tough but required conversations for NZ.

It’s time we brought more maturity to that conversation. A couple of suggestions to start the BBQ season.  Talking water quality, let’s start the uncomfortable personal conversation around how much we are each prepared to pay for improved water quality in our town or city.  But to really get those BBQ conversations humming, how about having another think about building dams to support significant water storage. Water will be the currency of global success in this century.  Those who have it will prosper in an increasingly dry world. Water is one of our country’s strategic assets. Maybe it could even power an economy less dependent on fossil fuels. But we are going to have to build some stuff and be prepared to pay for it.

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22 Comments

A good article on a crucial matter... well done.
It is in NZs interest to view fresh water as a strategic commodity. We are literally giving it away, as government and iwi, refuse to find consensus.
The protection of water in NZ, is the best way we can combat climate change. If we cut our emissions to zero, we would still only be impacting less than 0.10 of the worlds total global emissions. By focusing heavily on clean water in NZ, we will be contributing more to the planet than by platitudes of being ‘carbon free.’ Think of the billions of single use plastic bottles once filled with ‘clean’ NZ water are now polluting the planet...
Wars are already being fought over clean potable H2O... it is time NZ looked at treating water as the critical and strategic asset it is and investing in it accordingly.

... agreed ... its human nature that we dont use wisely , nor respect , those things we get for free ... our natural resources are key drivers of our economy , and of our excellent lifestyles ...

We need to protect that , with taxes on resources .. a land tax ... water tax , no more free water for Chinese bottlers ! ...

... good article Todd : happy new year , sir .

Nations tend to undervalue abundant - and especially renewable - resources and in doing so allow exploitation by foreign interests. Tropical rainforests is another example.

.. not to mention our air , an abundant resource . .. and , when then PM Helen Clarke attempted to open a debate on methane emissions from farm animals , she was ridiculed in the media .. and certain farmer groups made churlish and childish public displays of outrage ... those buffoons got their way ... and set back the clean air argument by a decade . .

10 years on , we're stuck with the UNs IPCC idiotic protocols ... rather than designing our own for ourselves .... sigh ... another opportunity squandered . .

It's unbelievable that animals are still allowed to breath air in NZ, it's a climate emergency crisis and boomers are busy stealing childhoods. It's already so hot I need to use the A/C constantly, we are litrally cooking ourselves.

... NURSE ! ... he's at it again ... have you given him his medication this morning ? ....

The level of entitlement encouraged by National's disregard for clean water and Fed farmers appalling leadership is staggering, all the effort denying the problem existed has left industry reeling - 2 decades behind.
Independent audits have shown that farmer's claims, repeated by Muller, that both the level of expenditure and work carried out to be grossly exaggerated.

Nz farmers - No 1 in the world at telling us they are No 1 in the world.

Nice Todd. I've been saying for nearly 40 years (since arriving back home) that we need to stop taking our water for granted. You should have seen the looks I got last century when I said so. And you're right about water storage, we need to quadruple our water storage starting with every household having a rain water tank for specific, non-consumptive uses (including you Greens). And you're also right about our urban wastewater infrastructure, it's old & aging & will take a pretty penny to update for our 21st Century expectations. The farmers have started. Have the rest of us?

Excellent article, keep them coming so we can turn the minds of the ignorant!

JMO but every new build should be made to have a water tank and the Govt could offer incentives for old homes as they do with heating and other things.

lots of new builds have no use for a rainwater tank... no garden, nothing more than a postage stamp of lawn. No real point in catching rainwater.

. .. having lived many years in Australia ... the rainwater tank water was used in the kitchen ... it's the good stuff.... the brown murky muck piped in by the council was used to flush the dunny , or to water the lemon tree ..

dunno where you live Gummy, but here in Auckland we get clean clear water out of taps.

Not really you just think its clean out of a tap but you dont know where it came from. Lived on tank water in Albany for 17 years now back on tank water in Puhoi its the best but the setup requires maintenance and you need 2 tanks if you never want to runout.

About a Million aucklanders drink/bathe/cook in Auckland reticulated water and don't get sick, and Watercare tests water quality regularly.. it is clean.

The level of outright bullshit from some on this site is getting out of hand.

Water needs to have a value, we have farmers round me with 8+ million M3 takes for pasture based dairy farms, where up to %80 evaporates.
Then we all get to suffer the reduced river flows and the hi nutrients and all the other problems making people sick.
Our council thought we could all pay 30c an M3, if we started at 20c an m3 and put all the money back into the environment we should start seeing noticeable improvements in a fairly short space of time.

You have offered exactly nothing. Where is the bit about water bottling companies TAKING our precious pure water? Where is the bit about putting the brakes on immigration before we wreck everything in this country with too many people?
National has no answers at all. Only exploit, exploit, exploit, build more dams, destroy more natural waterways.

This article is dry on facts. Farming NZ can't be congratulated on doing good work because its resisting the need to change every step of the way including setting up its own PR team to publish fake news about how well farmers treat the environment. Stop lying and we may believe you. As for urban centres polluting, yes that is a problem but not purposefully occurring, broken pipes aren't the same as purposefully running your herd through a creek each day...or running your effluent irrigator on inundated land just because you don't have time to move it or knee deep mud during winter grazing.

Quote
"Every year around two billion litres of sewage-inflicted water ends up in Auckland’s Waitematā Harbour. That’s just under 5.5 million litres every day – or 63 litres every single second."

Yep - And nothing has changed in 60 years - they talk about it - and continue closing the beaches

... oh .. so , all those candy bars floating in the harbor are in fact grogans ...

And those white papers ... not messages of seasons greetings ?

.. ah .... poooo ....

.. if you imagine a 44 gallon drum .... see how big that is ... one of those full of sewage every 3 seconds into the harbour .... every 3 seconds 24/7 ...

Shit !

One factor which complicates the Water debate is the Maori claims to ownership to all or part of it. No Gubmint (so far) has been prepared to grasp That nettle.....