Water, and not bread is the staff of life; an expression the goes back to biblical days. We can exist for quite some time without bread (food) but not water.
Water is essential for proper brain function which has become even more obvious these days. One can be forgiven for assuming dehydration is prevalent with (published) ill-informed comments from public figures denying there is any public concerns as to where the future administration/commercialisation of water is heading.
It is entirely right and proper therefore that all the issues surrounding ownership, development and or control of water and its uses receives the utmost scrutiny. Claims to fresh water in the South Island have been filed in the High Court so it would seem the political scramble for use and prior use rights continues unabated.
The 100-year-old Miners Rights are to be unilaterally extinguished toward the end of this year. Many would also suggest that the current municipal administration of water should also abolished. It is most concerning that Local and Central Government, Mayors and Ministers still see themselves as the appropriate authorities to continue to drive the reforms in the administration of water despite (collectively) being asleep at the wheel for so long.
Concerningly, Regional Councils each write their water policy, implement the policy, administer the policy, prosecute the policy, and sit in judgment on the policy which they are unlikely to ever rule against. There is a huge issue of fairness and independence with this local Government process alone. The consultative process of local government is usually along the lines of – “Tell us whether you agree with what we have decided” and therein lies the problem. Genuine consultation has to occur at the formative stages which simply doesn’t happen or is rare to say the least. To be fair, the constant flow of new requirements around fresh water - called National Policy Statements from Central Government cause real difficulties for Local Government. Such Government policies adopt a drift net approach for convenience and ensnare the good, the bad and everything in between - to be implemented by Local Government.
Meanwhile water shortages are reported, almost weekly among local Government - the latest being Tauranga. The growth of Auckland has the potential to reduce the Waikato river to a shadow of its former self as consumptive demand outstrips supply. Curiously, water extraction from the Waikato appears to be an entirely acceptable - non notifiable process. Try taking water from a rural stream and all hell breaks loose. The urban-rural divide is quite obvious as rural users seek to continue to extract water for a personal/commercial use just as the good folk in Auckland do. So how does that work when a racial element is also introduced
Much of the current controversy is due to Maoridom insisting their significant voice must be heard as the proposed “Three waters” reforms proceed at pace. Nobody within Central or Local Government has explained how the all-important declaration of any conflict-of-interest requirement for all who sit on a council, is to be complied with if participants on a council are there to secure their own rights and interests in fresh water as of right. It is not clear whether the existing situation, where conflicts of interest and indeed vested interests are obvious, is being managed or ignored by council where representation of Maori is already existing at the council table with full voting rights. Non-Maori water users with conflicts or vested interest are immediately disqualified. Whether or not such conflicts, as applied to Maori, should be a matter of concern to the wider public is a question that demands transparency right from the start. The Westminster system of a democratic governance demands nothing less; or is administration of water going to be “adjusted” to allow vested Maori interests to also determine policy.
Ngai Tahu are one of the South Islands most astute investors, but with a top tax rate of 19% it is hard to see Ngai Tahu being anything else but successful. It’s also hard to see them wanting to get involved in aging urban water piping infrastructure. Rather, their interest is likely to be designed around water takes where a levy could be easily implemented as all water takes are now monitored. If that is to happen now or into the future, then it must be declared. Ngai Tahu play the long game and are extremely good at it so perhaps the Leader of the Oppositions recent comments around Maori objectives with this issue could or do ‘hold water.’
It is therefore reasonable to ask whether Maori interests in water should be seen as a threat or an opportunity to all water users. It is possible that Maoridom could end up as being perfectly reasonable stewards of fresh water. Maori leaders who say they wish to stop privatisation of fresh water need to explain how their 50% control differs from privatisation.
The government must first adhere to a simple principle – trust the people - ask the people. They won’t of course as Jacinda has learnt that you can change the name of our country without discussion and no media outlet has challenged her on that issue so I guess water ownership will be walk in the park. It’s easy to accept that the National Party is taking the knee on this issue.
Gerry Eckhoff is a former councillor on the Otago Regional Council and MP.