Understanding New Zealand’s fresh water crisis: Part 2

Although the picture painted  of New Zealand fresh water in the previous post is not pretty, it is not catastrophically bad and compared with other nations. New Zealand’s fresh water resources are still in remarkably good condition. The country has also thus far been spared the planning and privatisation controversies afflicting other countries. And New Zealand itself knows what the problems with its fresh water resource are and how to deal with them.

So, if it is that straight forward, how come fresh water quality continues to deteriorate?

A significant factor in the crisis is simply the will power of elected officials to act. This is particularly true of Members of Parliament, but also of City/District/Regional Councillors, the latter two having largely rural constituents. Typically City and District Councils tend to be more pro-development, which puts them offside with Regional Councils which the statutory role of implementing the Resource Management Act, 1991, whose core value of sustainable management of natural and physical resources for the foreseeable future requires a more precautionary approach.

Another issue is New Zealanders private use of water. New Zealanders like their gardens and lawns. Despite council metering, the application of water is quite liberal and a reluctance to impose restrictions enforced by infringement notices and fines only exacerbates the issue.

A third issue is council planning, which may be put down in part to a reluctance to raise council rates thereby hindering their ability to hire extra planning staff or carry out additional monitoring. This leads to half baked plans not always built on the most reliable data.

And then there is government interference. One such case is that of Canterbury, whose numerous waterways are both diverse in size as well as origin and where allocation of water for farmers has been a testy issue. The details of the interference are beyond the scope of this post, but the division between the rural and urban constituencies, in fighting and the use of Government appointed Commissioners have made fresh water quality issues a festering sore point. In Canterbury three separate classes of water way were identified in the Natural Resources Regional Plan:

1) Spring fed rivers – small streams in low land areas with easily erodible banks, frequently accessed by cattle,  little influence from rainfall

2) Hill fed rivers – medium sized rivers with single channel beds of gravel and clay, can be accessed by cattle

3) Alpine fed rivers – large dynamic rivers, frequently prone to flooding and freshes, significant sources of irrigation water

Another example is the Manawatu River in Manawatu, which was once rated the most polluted river in New Zealand because of the poor management of dairy farms on its banks. Other rivers to have had major fresh water quality issues include the Tarawera River in the Bay of Plenty, which has a pulp and paper mill on one side and forestry on the other. The issues have generally been of similar nature involving poorly management of discharges from major industries on the banks.

So, what can we do about it?

It may seem strange, but a significant part of the problem is voter apathy in local government elections. Issues around amenities, natural resources and so forth just do not seem to have the same appeal in terms of importance as those which one might expect to see debated in general elections. The quality of the elected councillors are in part reflective of voter attitudes.

A second problem may be with the Resource Management Act not being sufficiently clear about what issues the elected councils have to consult on, and should they do so, whether it will be a partially notified or fully notified hearing.

But the biggest is simply the will power of the elected officials to act, scared that they will upset their constituents. Sometimes good leadership involves making unpopular decisions and it is simply in the case of some river catchments that no more water can be taken from a particular catchment.

The real question is now, who will stand up and take the lead.



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