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New challenges in urban water management

Marian Hobbs
15 June 2000 Speech Notes
New challenges in urban water management
Urban 2000 – Urban Water Management Conference
Duxton Hotel, Wellington, 9am

Many of us living in New Zealand see our society as a rural society. In fact we are a bunch of townies. Our towns and cities are home to 85% of all New Zealanders. New Zealand is one of the most urbanised societies in the world.

For cities, one of the most important issues is the management of water. Historically, cities were located on rivers or harbours to facilitate transport of people and goods in and out. Being located on rivers or harbours put many cities at risk from flooding. Yes, water management is an important urban issue.

Geoff Park in his book Nga Uruora described Petone in 1840 through the eyes of Charles McGurk, a contract surveyor. McGurk was laying out the plans for a new town, Brittania. He remarked that “A great many of the streets would run through swamps and marshes, in some places six and ten feet deep”. Later Wakefield noted that the “marshy nature of the soil and its liability to inundation at present [make it] unfit for the settler”. Nevertheless, Wakefield declared that “the swamps would be thrown out” and that the town of Britannia would be built. However, a huge flood inundated the valley in 1849 and the colony moved to Thorndon. In 1893 Petone constructed its first stopbank, but as recently as the 1930s, people could remember the whole lower floodplain as being under water.

Water quantity was not the only water management issue in the Hutt Valley. Geoff Park notes that the Petone foreshore in 1940 was so filthy with meat works waste that the centennial monument had to be erected further along the beach. In the 1980s, the name Waiwhetu became synonymous with urban pollution, although its name means “water that sparkles like stars”.

Today, even a casual glance up the Hutt Valley will show a rather difficult environment. Many of the original environmental problems have been overcome. The issues may be have changed in the years following Maori and then European settlement, but they are still very significant. It is very appropriate that we hold a conference to address these issues as we enter a new millennium.

Our cities are very important to us. They provide an environment for living in, for working in, and for playing in. We expect our cities to be attractive and clean.

City life is great and Wellington city life is even greater. Wellington is so attractive: beautiful harbour, green belt, great sky, those clear still days like yesterday (hopefully today). Wellingtonians use public transport more than other places. Therefore it's a very human city. People throng the inner city streets, rather than cars. Urban life is not just a series of problems. It is attractive and inner city life is becoming even more attractive.

The last summer was rather mediocre, in Wellington at least. But, I’m sure most of you went for a swim at the beach. Many of those beaches would have been in the vicinity of urban areas. Most swimmers would have assumed that the water quality at those beaches was safe for swimming. It's true that the water at those beaches is much better than in equivalent areas overseas. However, I suspect that the average Kiwi would be surprised about the risk to health posed by swimming at some of our urban beaches. This is particularly true following rain, when dirty stormwater pours onto our beaches and sewerage systems are overwhelmed.

Over a hundred New Zealanders drown each year. We don’t know how many get sick from swimming at contaminated beaches, from eating contaminated seafood and from drinking contaminated water. We do know that contamination of bathing water in the Mediterranean is estimated to result in over 2 million cases of gastrointestinal illness annually. Certainly, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of water-borne diseases in the western world.

Cities may not have the same overall impact on the aquatic environment that our rural areas have. That’s primarily because cities make up only 3% of this country’s land. However, the higher intensity of land use means that the impact is more concentrated than in rural areas. And more importantly, cities are where most of us live, and so many of us interact with urban aquatic environments. So we are affected by what goes on in urban catchments.

Cities tend to be located along harbours, estuaries and river mouths, and so are in the most sensitive parts of the coast. These areas are critically important for aquatic biodiversity. Many marine and freshwater fish spawn or have their early lifestages in these waters, before they complete their higher education upstream or offshore. It is these waters that receive much of the stormwater and even sewage from cities.

An adequate supply of safe water is vital to human health and survival. Protecting the quality of drinking water is a pre-requisite for good health. The relatively recent identification of disease-causing bugs such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium transmitted through drinking water has focused attention on the potentially serious stomach illnesses they can cause. Our friends in Sydney recently experienced what it is like when water supplies were contaminated with Cryptosporidium. Auckland had its own water “crisis”, an issue of quantity rather than quality. Meanwhile, many people are responding to real or perceived problems of water quality by consuming bottled water at a cost that could be more usefully directed to water quality improvements. Many water supplies are of excellent quality. However, this is not always the case. The Ministry of Health surveyed public water supplies in 1998. This showed that 19% of the people covered by this survey were supplied with drinking-water that failed to comply with microbiological criteria.

In Europe, three quarters of abstracted water is used for industry and domestic use. Here in New Zealand, three quarters of the water we consume is used for irrigation. Nevertheless, our cities consume a lot of water. Aucklanders consume around 380 litres of water per person per day, whereas Wellingtonians use 550 litres per person per day. The real issue with cities is that urban impacts tend to be concentrated. Just where can Auckland get all the water it needs now and in the future?

There’s a general perception that the clear clean water that pours out of our taps is mainly used for drinking. However, only a very small portion is used for drinking and cooking. Some is used for watering gardens, but most is used for carrying our wastes. So of the water which enters a city in a water pipe, the vast majority leaves in our sewers. And to this we must add that which leaves in stormwater mains.

Cities have hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres of water supply pipes, stormwater pipes, and sewerage pipes, water treatment plants, wastewater treatment plants, pumping stations. I’ve been told that this infrastructure is worth around six billion dollars. This infrastructure has a limited life, after all sewers carry rather unpleasant liquids. And most cities are growing, some very rapidly. Many cities have not kept up with the maintenance and replacement needed.

What is the nature of the industry that provides our water and disposes our liquid wastes? It's largely owned by local authorities, and hence by ratepayers. They are effectively monopolies. There’s some competition for the collection and disposal of solid waste. However, there is no real choice when it comes to water supply and wastewater disposal. These monopolies tend to deal with most aspects of water, from supply, reticulation through to disposal – they are vertically integrated. They are also fragmented – each territorial authority runs its own operation.

What is the nature of the regulatory regime that controls this industry? In short, it’s complicated. There’s the Local Government Act, the Health Act, the Resource Management Act involving district and city councils, regional councils, local authority trading enterprises, and health authorities.

So what does this mean? Cities are important. To me. To most New Zealanders who live in them. To the country as a whole. By world standards, water management in our cities is pretty good. But by the standards most New Zealanders set themselves, there’s plenty of scope for improvement. Most city folk are pretty ignorant about where there water comes from, where it goes to once used, and the complex infrastructure that lies between. In places, this infrastructure is struggling to cope.

This suggests that we need to do things differently.

There are challenges to be faced about the efficient use of water, losses due to leaks in reticulated supplies and discouraging wasteful practices.

Local Government New Zealand has taken up the challenge of the previous Government to review water supply and disposal in New Zealand. I support the objective that water, wastewater and stormwater services should enhance the public health and wellbeing of our communities in an affordable, equitable, efficient, effective and environmentally sustainable way. I look forward to reports of further progress.

But there’s more to urban water management than dams, pipes and sewers. Streams are the Cinderellas of our urban environments. These streams need to be recognised as key features of our towns and cities and treated with respect. These streams are essential for the natural environment and biodiversity. As rich habitats and as wildlife corridors, their influence can extend for many miles. They can improve the quality of life for people living in urban areas. They can enhance the value of commercial development – the value of a well-planned property next to a sustainably managed watercourse may be up to 20 percent higher than other property.

Historically, flooding has been one of the main reasons why watercourses have been channelised. But this approach has treated the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem. We need to take an integrated approach over the whole catchment. Then we will no longer need to control flooding solely by expensive and unnatural concrete flood defences. Sustainable urban drainage systems involve measures right from where the rain first hits the ground and not just at the point where the flooding occurs. We should allow water to percolate into the soil rather than wash into the nearest stream. Runoff can be held in ponds and wetlands to allow natural processes to act on pollutants and to avoid overloading local watercourses. Soft engineering techniques can allow concrete and steel to be replaced with natural processes and materials. Watercourses that are currently buried, or in concrete channels can be broken out and restored to a more natural appearance.

I am strongly of the view that all sectors of the community including local, regional and central government have a part to play in developing and implementing sustainable solutions. But no one group has an absolute mandate for urban sustainability and neither should they; it is just too big and too complex. We need to work together.

Urban sustainability is about making links. This is true both for urban areas experiencing rapid growth and those experiencing a decline. Agenda 21, it seems to me, offers a useful action plan to link the environment, economy and society together.

At the end of April, I was in New York at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. I was impressed to see the energy that people were putting in to working out the big messages for Rio+10 – that is, the 10th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit. A key principle of Agenda 21 is community participation. Community participation, and by that I mean the community in its widest sense, is the cornerstone of democracy. I believe participation is also a key ingredient in developing strategies to overcome urban problems. If the community does not have a common vision or buy into the strategies then urban problems will continue. We need the community to help work up ideas and visions and to help turn visions and strategies into reality.

We need to look at creative ways of achieving the vision. Too often, I think, regulation has been used to force reluctant communities to change. Regulation has its place but co-operative approaches have to be given a shot first.

I would like to say here that I believe most decisions about urban management are best made at a local level with community input. Local government is in a central position to respond to its local constituency. It has to weigh up competing interests. A range of environmental values has to be considered.

I have not forgotten the role of central government. There is a clear national interest in urban water management, especially in achieve outcomes in health. Planned upgrades involve the expenditure of large sums of money. I believe there are minimum standards for environmental quality below which we, as a nation, should not fall. As Minister for the Environment I am aware that central government has an important part to play in complementing and supporting the efforts of local government and the community. I see the partnership between central and local government as an important one. I want to see it developed further. In my mind this is a partnership between equals.

Each level of government is best suited to dealing with particular aspects of urban problems. Central government is able to shape institutional structures and systems, including regulatory frameworks such as the Local Government Act, Rating Powers Act and the Resource Management Act. Furthermore, it is better placed to address some of the issues common to all urban areas.

The last Labour Government proposed a new sewage treatment subsidy scheme. The National Government did not proceed with it. Labour will again introduce a sewage treatment subsidy scheme to provide assistance to small and medium sized communities which are unable to fully fund their own upgrades, and which face significant health risks from inadequate sewage treatment. The Minister of Health will shortly submit a paper to Cabinet providing preliminary advice on issues relating to sewerage subsidies. This is likely to involve a comprehensive survey of the state of wastewater management – I was surprised to hear how little we know collectively about the state of wastewater management in New Zealand.

The Government is serious about its role in urban sustainability and is taking action. Paying specific attention to urban environments is a priority for Labour. The Prime Minister sent this message loudly and clearly when she appointed a Minister to advise her on Auckland Affairs – the Hon Judith Tizard.

I am urban and proud of it, maybe now more urban than suburban! I love a clean and vibrant Wellington. Water is a fundamental part of Wellington’s environment, economy, and lifestyle. Urban water must be managed with care, respect, and innovation. This is my challenge to you as you begin this important conference.


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