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Freshwater as a common good; healthy and sustainable water

Published: Thu 20 Jul 2017 10:35 AM
“How can we ensure we have healthy and sustainable water in New Zealand for the future?”
NZ has been privileged to enjoy natural freshwater of an abundance and purity equalled by very few places on earth. Water is an essential element of both our natural ecosystem and our social system. All New Zealanders rely on this freshwater for their basic needs of drinking, cooking, bathing and sanitation and waterways generate half the country's electricity. However, water is also of value inherently as an essential part of the natural world and for its more ethereal benefits such as recreation, healing, spiritual fulfilment and relaxation. Most New Zealanders have strong emotional connections to water and to particular waterways where they have in the past enjoyed bathing, boating, fishing or simply sat and observed this passage of water from mountain to coast.
In the Māori worldview (Te Ao Māori) each water body has its own mauri (life force) and usually a strong connection to a particular iwi or hapū. This worldview recognises that water exists in a relationship of mutual interdependence and guardianship with humans and other non-human life as it is constantly recycled to move ‘Ki uta ki tai’ (from the mountains to the sea).
Water may seem robust and infinite, however, our co-existence with this element involves a delicate dance. Seemingly minor changes by humans to water flows or ecosystems can have big impacts on the overall health and future existence of this finite and depletable system and all the life that relies upon it. “All the water that will ever be is right now.” National Geographic
Some human activities are relatively harmless to the overall water system, yet others are seriously detrimental by adding pollutants, extracting water or even modifying entire ecosystems as in the case of dams, drains and culverts. Once a complex waterway ecosystem is disrupted, polluted or tips over to an anaerobic state then it is nearly impossible to restore it to its natural state.
Water – a common good
Freshwater is what can be described as a ‘common good’ or a ‘common pool resource’ – in other words it is a resource we all share. New Zealanders have a diverse range of interests in this resource and their various activities place different demands on the water system. Often these interests and uses align but sometimes they are in direct conflict. This range of competing human interests and the already fragile balance of the water system makes management of our common water resources a particularly complex and challenging, yet critical issue to solve.
A nominal situation in the Resource Management Act has been that no one owns water. This has given way to an unregulated ‘free for all’ as successive National Policy Statements for freshwater have favoured exploitation over conservation. There is little clarity over usage rights and licensing charges for use are minimal. There is a first mover advantage for water bottling or irrigation companies and little clarity on who should pay for measures to maintain or improve water quality. In the current system there are very few sanctions or restrictions to prevent those who abuse the common resource for private profit. This problematic behaviour known as ‘freeloading’ is a well-documented one in the management of common resources with competing interests and generally arises where there is a lack of clear rules or sanctions.
This current state of affairs could in fact be described as “a tragedy of the anti-commons”
For more background on the core principles of succesful ‘common-pool resource management’ check out this article on the late Elinor Ostrom who received a nobel prize for economics for her work on investigating how communities globally co-operate to share resources effectively.
Dame Anne Salmond, Patron of the Te Awaroa project has written extensively on the issue of water as a common good in Aotearoa. Her recent piece in the Herald calls for more discussion of issues of common ownership in this election campaign.
There were high hopes for a more innovative approach to fresh-water management in New Zealand through the Land and Water Forum, which was created to follow a collaborative approach based on this thinking. However the Land and Water Forum has lost some of its environmentally focused members who left in frustration at the Government’s tardy response to the Forum’s recommendations. Right now the Forum is waiting for the revised National Policy Statement to be released which, depending on whether it’s been listened to, will make-or-break its ongoing relationship with Government. Read more here.
Self-serving and extractive water uses deplete or pollute the water system and affect its overall viability as an ecosystem and its utility as a resource to all other present and future users. As a result there are clear winners and losers – those who extract and pollute for profits are winning in the short term and in the end we all lose as we watch one of our most precious treasures and national environmental heitage trickle away. This means that we all share an interest in finding universally agreeable solutions to better manage or govern collective use of water. If we do this quick enough and collaborate across political and ideological divides then there may still be a future in which generations of Kiwis again enjoy clean and abundant freshwater.
The Facts
It seems undeniable that the delicate balance of the water management system in NZ is broken. Many Kiwis’ most basic water needs are not able to be satisfied.
We are seeing more extreme drought and flooding, algal blooms and rapid disappearance of the diversity of plant and animal life that once provided us with recreation, food and helped to maintain a rich freshwater ecosystem. Some rivers now flow only seasonally and contamination of previously pristine aquifers has caused major outbreaks of illness from the public water supply. Waterborne pathogens have contributed to deaths, caused unknown numbers of people to suffer ongoing serious and life threatening autoimmune conditions and made more than 5,000 people ill. Other problematic activities include the pollution of waterways by industry, agriculture and dated urban water infrastructure and the extraction of aquifer water for export.
Climate change and the predicted increase of extreme weather occurrences is likely to increase variability of water supply by season and by year. NIWA has produced a Climate change freshwater impacts assessment report stating that increasing temperatures and shifting precipitation regimes are likely to alter freshwater supply and demand, aquatic ecosystems and natural hazards. This means we must account for potential climate-change impacts on freshwater in any public policy planning decisions.
Population growth and the increasing industrialisation of our economy also appear to be increasing demand for freshwater, meaning less water is available to meet the needs of all New Zealanders and of the ecosystem.
That there is a serious issue with freshwater quality seems now beyond debate. This is a classic case of common-pool resource management and failure. Our institutions of collective decision making and action are simply not functioning to support our needs and the health of our environment.
The Evidence
The Ministry for the Environment and Statistics NZ recently published a joint report Our fresh water 2017. The report presents information about the state of our fresh water, the pressures on this state, and what that means for us and the environment. Importantly, it highlights major issues of water quality deterioration due to high nitrogen levels, imminent freshwater flora and fauna extinctions, poor urban water quality and climate change adaption issues.
The OECD’s third Environmental Performance Report on NZ was published on 21/03/2017. This report states that growth in intensive dairy production has increased the level of nitrogen in soil, surface water and groundwater. Worse still New Zealand’s increase in nitrogen balance (the difference between nutrients entering and leaving the system) was found to be higher than in any other OECD country from 2000 to 2010.
Greenpeace also recently published a report about the serious public health consequences of pollution of our waterways by intensive dairy agriculture. The report Sick of Too Many Cows; How intensive livestock farming could be endangering our health is available here.
Newshub has also published a special report on freshwater quality in 2017.
The office of the Auditor-General has designated ‘Water’ as its area of focus for the 2017/18 work year. The Auditor-General is a ‘public watchdog’ responsible for auditing all of New Zealand’s public entities and acting as a check and balance on the public sector. This decision to adopt water as the theme for the year was clearly not taken lightly and reflects the widespread concern that our institutions are failing us in the water governance area. An outline of the scope of this OAG work is provided in their annual plan here.
Radio New Zealand has reported on the planned audit work here.
The Solutions
These facts and statistics speak for themselves. However, the question is now how can we improve the situation and who is really serious about addressing the issue.
There are still many differing opinions on the available solutions to this problem. These solutions require careful and rational collective discussion and decision in order to identify which are agreeable and workable. Many different policy proposals and suggestions are on the table by advocacy groups and political parties around water quality including the following:
Policy Proposals from Advocacy group
Freshwater Rescue plan.
Leaders from the tourism, science, health, recreation and environmental conservation sectors have collaborated to launch a plan for solving the country’s freshwater crisis in response to the Government's Clean Water Package which was criticised by freshwater advocates for not going far enough..
The groups involved (The Tourism Export Council, Fish & Game, Forest & Bird, Greenpeace, Federated Mountain Clubs, Choose Clean Water and OraTaio) have presented seven steps that can be taken immediately to protect fresh water. These involve stopping public funding of irrigation schemes, a reduction in cow numbers, stricter enforcement of environmental breaches, and forcing polluters to pay for their environmental damage.
Policy proposals from political parties
The highest polling political parties have a diverse range of views and proposed solutions around water quality. We have attempted to list those we are aware of and add some links as context but do not claim this to be exhaustive or to comprehensively capture the complexity or depth of any of these policy proposals.
We invite the parties as, we invite everyone else, to submit statements of their own to this exercise or to contact us with further resources or information on their policies for publication on Scoop.
National
The government's Clean Water Package was unveiled in February.
Many commentators have criticised both the science behind this package and the inability of the government to communicate this science in plain language. NIWA released a report confirming that the new ‘Clean Water’ rules are in fact less restrictive than the ones they are intended to replace.
Labour
Labour released a 12-point freshwater policy in June 2017. This policy aims to make consenting harder for farms to intensify operations, tighten sanctions on polluters, make all rivers and lakes swimmable and extend freshwater quality standards.
The Herald reported that at the policy's core is a new National Policy Statement (NPS) for Freshwater Management, based on principles recommended eight years ago by former head Environment Court Judge David Sheppard.
Environment Minister Nick Smith has criticised Labour’s plan as “vague” and “unfair” to farmers.
Green Party
The Green Party introduced a Members bill – The Resource Management (Clean Groundwater) Amendment Bill in 2017. This bill seeks to make the protection of groundwater a matter of national importance and ensure that Ministers and councils give greater weight to its protection in their decision-making.
The Greens also proposed a 10 cent levy on bottled water at their campaign launch in Nelson, however they have admitted the policy would recoup just under $3 million with the amount of water currently being exported.
The Greens have also committed to coming up with a pricing mechanism for all commercial water extraction, including much bigger users such as irrigators.
NZ First
NZ First states that a comprehensive National Policy Statement on Water Resource Uses must be developed and implemented. Some of the principles of the NZ First water policy include:
· Water is a common good and cannot be owned by any person or by the Crown.
· The Treaty of Waitangi does not confer rights to take or use water upon Māori which are greater or lesser than the rights of any other New Zealander.
· Māori have shared guardian status and therefore have a right to shared governance in some areas of water management.
· Priorities for granting water rights must place public benefit before private benefit.
Māori Party
Māori Party Co-leader Marama Fox has stated that freshwater management requires a cohesive and coherent water quality management framework and focusing more on Te Mana o Te Wai should be considered by the Government.
The Te Mana o Te Wai Fund provides funding for projects that support or enable iwi/hapū to improve the water quality of freshwater bodies, including lakes, rivers, streams, estuaries and lagoons.
The Opportunities Party
The Clear Water Action Plan stipulates that public water access for citizens should be protected, but every other litre should be sold at market price. It states that water consents will only be allocated if they are environmentally and socially sustainable with no priority to past usage.
The policy also proposes a scheme to determine acceptable levels of nitrate and other pollutants in each community and to penalise businesses above the sustainable level and reward those below it.
ACT Party
ACT states on their website they will “Introduce better water management, where water rights are tradeable, giving owners greater incentives to conserve water and oppose pollution of it.”
International Law Commitments and the human right to water
We also invite you to consider the various policy proposals in light of New Zealand’s international commitments under International Human Rights law to enact policies in support of the Resolution on the human rights of all citizens to clean drinking water and sanitation.
The human right to water and sanitation was explicitly recognised by the United Nations General Assembly in a 2010 resolution. This resolution and subsequent statements have acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of many other human rights.
In 2012, the NZ Human Rights Commission published the report Human Rights and Water. This report looks at issues such as; who “owns” it, how it should be allocated and used, who should supply it, its cost and quality, and how it should be regulated.
International Law Commitments to Māori
New Zealand has obligations under international law to protect the various historic and future water rights of Māori.
These obligations stem from both Treaty of Waitangi commitments to Māori as well as our status as signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)
The most relevant sections of the UN declaration confirm that indigenous peoples have the right to:
24. Health, and to their traditional medicinal resources and health practices
25. Their spiritual relationship with their lands and resources
26. Recognition and protection of their lands and resources
27. Fair processes for dealing with their rights to lands and resources
28. Redress for lands and resources taken or damaged without consent
29. Environmental protection
Māori Council Waitangi Tribunal Freshwater Claim
It sounds a lot like the issue of Māori ownership, co-governance or rights to water is ‘no longer urgent’ and will not be seriously discussed by the Crown before the 2017 election. This may well be a crucial missed opportunity to progress the issue at a time when it is high on the public agenda.
There does not appear to be any substantive progress on the issue of Treaty claims over freshwater since the Waitangi Tribunal announced the second phase of the Māori Council's Treaty claim over freshwater as Radio New Zealand reported in April 2016.
The Waitangi Tribunal reported in June 2017 that the inquiry was ‘no longer urgent’, as there was no longer an imminent Crown action following due to delays in the Crown’s development of policy options. The inquiry would remain one of ‘priority’ and Stage 2 of the inquiry may go to hearing and then reporting, however no clear timeframe is given as yet.
Open Government Partnership Commitments
Finally New Zealand has committed to the Open Government Partnership which requires us to proactively promote more transparency, accountability and openness in Government and more participation and engagement with citizens and real opportunities for exercising our democratic rights. Transparency International New Zealand has outlined our commitments in this space here. Max Rashbrooke has also reported on how to make New Zealand government more open here and in his full report Bridges Both Ways: Transforming Openness of New Zealand Government, for Victoria University's Institute of Governance and Policy Studies which he discussed on Radio New Zealand here.
Conclusion
Scoop and the Opening the Election project call on the government and all opposition parties to acknowledge and take seriously their Open Government Partnership commitments by undertaking to provide more accurate and detailed information to citizens on water quality policies proposals, research and plans.
We believe this transparency will ensure that citizens can be more fully engaged in the process of finding agreeable solutions in the future and to vote accordingly for parties which are serious about addressing these hugely challenging and important issues openly and honestly without further delay.
We invite you as one of the 4 million co-users and guardians of our shared water resources to participate in this Hivemind exploration on Freshwater quality. Your views will ensure we get a diverse and representative sample group to provide good data and a wide range of suggestions on what solutions Kiwis can potentially agree on around water quality.
This community engagement exercise will be shorter than the first OTE HiveMind exploration on Housing Affordability at only two weeks total until Wed 2 August 2017, please get involved early and help us spread the word about this important debate.
Thankyou for supporting Scoop and HiveMind as we open the election in 2017.
Joseph Cederwall
Co-editor/Community Engagement Manager
Scoop Publishing
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Further Resources
Freshwater quality
RNZ interview with Massey University's Nigel French and Professor Russell Death, on why we should be more ambitious and better value the health of the ecosystem of our waterways.
Radio NZ published a report as part of their brighter future? Series entitled Brighter Future? Murky prognosis for freshwater health
Stuff reports in Water quality proposals just a drop in the bucket on Fonterra’s pledge to play a greater role in addressing water quality by helping communities restore damaged waterways and on the Green Party’s water policy with a proposed levy on bottled water.
RNZ reported on the inability of the Government to explain its new water standards in plain English.
Irrigation
Rachel Stewart in the Herald states that the Government's Irrigation Acceleration Fund, has already seen half a billion dollars of taxpayers' money funneled towards irrigation infrastructure, and with more to come. Stewart also points out the irony in the fact that we are all paying for the continuation of degraded rivers due to farming, given that “the beneficiaries of this public largesse don't tend to adhere to socialist theory.”
Leading Freshwater Scientist Mike Joy debunks the government’s recent claims that Irrigation is beneficial to the environment.
Radio New Zealand interview on the Tourism Export Council and the Environmental Defence Society’s calls for a five-year ban on new irrigation plans.
Stuff reports that both National and Labour support the Waimea dam proposal in Nelson and the Greens have opposed it. Treaty Issues
Rachel Stewart reports the Opportunities Party’s Freshwater plan is very audacious given that it is the only party actually seeking to address essential treaty issues around freshwater. Stewart states this is important because: “until freshwater claims are resolved, and tradeable use rights created - as was done with fisheries - a sustainable and effective allocation regime is not possible.” Water Metering
Newsroom reported that at the recent Freshwater Symposium in Wellington Environment Minister Nick Smith recently warned that ratepayers, taxpayers, and landowners are all going to pay for New Zealand to be able to improve freshwater management.
Stuff reports that in Taranaki water shortages and high demand means that it will be no great surprise if water metering is introduced (the infrastructure for this is already being rolled out) and/or major new water infrastructure is planned for the district in the coming years.
Joseph Cederwall
Freelance Writer
Joseph Cederwall is an interim co-editor and community engagement manager at Scoop Publishing. He is a part of the HiveMind and 'Opening the Election' project. He is a director and secretary of Freerange Cooperative, an international publishing cooperative. Joseph is a contributor to Enspiral - a non-hierarchical and open-source collective dedicated to supporting collaborative business and improving the world through social enterprise. With a grounding in law and anthropology he has worked in the Immigration and Human Rights field as a lawyer and advocate.
Contact Joe Cederwall
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