The Government’s looming water fight


There is an issue simmering in the background of New Zealand politics that threatens to split the Government. For all the scenes of unity and co-operation coming out of the Beehive, a combination of an ideologically divisive issue, indigenous claims to ownership and fears of a gravy train is threatening to erupt into a major three way water fight.

There are several major issues with the way the use of fresh water is governed in New Zealand, not least:

  1. Iwi have significant claims vis-a-vis the Treaty of Waitangi to how water is used, and the aesthetic properties of fresh water bodies such as the mauri or life force
  2. Everyone by biological default needs clean drinking water – which makes this a medical issue, as well as a planning issue for councils
  3. The rate of use in New Zealand is not sustainable – the known fresh water resource in many catchments is 100% allocated
  4. On numerous waterways, the minimum flow set by regional councils is too low and subsequently the creeks, streams and rivers in question are not able to perform its natural functions as well as they should

The politics of water became complicated long before the Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took office. Having a minority Government with two significantly smaller minority parties propping up a larger party and all of them having significantly different views of water as a resource, has only served to complicate the picture further.

So, why do I say a fresh water fight is looming? Simple. The Green Party is categorically opposed to further irrigation projects siphoning off more of New Zealand’s precious fresh water resource. New Zealand First’s drive for the rural vote might intersect this. But it will not be that which starts the water fight. It will be the Government attempt to address water rights with Maori and the potential – as New Zealand First believes – to start a gravy train of other claims.

I am of the belief no one person, company, party, country or other entity can claim ownership of water as a resource. Its common physical properties mean everyone needs water to survive. Everyone needs it for hygiene, drinking, cooking purposes at the very least and that the totally fundamental common nature of this resource means that by default if a claim can be made at all to ownership, that claim is made by all people. All people have a common responsibility to ensure the stewardship of water is sustainable.

I agree with New Zealand First that Maori should not have ownership rights per se. One reason is the potential for a gravy train of other claims to form in terms of natural resources. The slippery nature of the slope and where New Zealand might end up as a result of being on it, suggests to me that this is an issue that might be best avoided altogether.

And so, New Zealand First and Labour’s first big scrap is looming. Unavoidable, but perhaps too big to want to try to avoid. Before anything happens in Parliament, a lot of water is going to flow under the proverbial bridge.

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