Water works

Article illustration

Photo: Beau Wade

We know that eventually even New Zealand, which is deluged in more rain that we can handle, must face up to the world-wide water crisis. It’s taken a business group to seize the nettle and produce a very good thought-starter on water, business and the rest of us.

The key issue: by 2012 all water rights in the most economically significant parts of the country will be allocated. After that, water turns into a fought after resource and basically it’s first in, first serve.

That’s no way to manage a precious resource.

We all need water: for growing cows and Kiwifruit, for generating power and mixing with our Raro. An unplanned future will result in a major ‘aqua-grab’ and the winners will not be ordinary people like you and me. It will be well-resourced corporations.

The report by the Business Council for Sustainable Development recommends a Best Use solution. This means creating a two-tiered system of planning: a law-based plan (similar to a District Plan) and a market-based system that allocates a certain amount to be traded by city governments and businesses. Think of it a bit like the cap and trade system being proposed for carbon emissions.

This differs from the current system which is more like a seat grab at the cricket. Under this scenario, if you have a right but don’t exercise that right, the water is ‘wasted’. The report says up to 80% of water could be shared or reallocated if there was a way to ‘sell’ the rights between bidders.

This approach requires a shift in thinking—the same shift that’s now proposed by the ETS.

Not before time. New Zealand has been woefully slow in adopting market mechanisms for managing public assets, such as roads and utilities. Such approaches are too easily dismissed as privatisation. We need to get over that as a post-90s hang up. 

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