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From New Zealand to Stockholm, water's the issue

01 September 2006

From New Zealand to Stockholm, water's the issue

At the end of last month, 2,000 environmentalists, policy makers, development workers, and scientists from around the world converged on Stockholm.

They were there for World Water Week, the global forum discussing the importance of access to water for poverty reduction, economic growth, and environmental sustainability.

At the same time, on the other side of the world, New Zealand's Ministry for the Environment launched its national Water Awareness Campaign. This event was, of course, much smaller and more low key than the one in Stockholm; but, regardless of their differences of scale, both were focussed on the same issue.

That issue is the need to conserve and protect the vital resource of fresh water – a resource that isn't in infinite supply, and can't be taken for granted.

Globally, one in three people don't have access to enough clean water to meet their daily needs. Water use has increased by 600% in the past 100 years, and will continue increasing as the world's population grows by two billion over the next quarter century. Climate change and extreme weather events pose significant challenges.

Here in New Zealand, we're surrounded by what seem to be abundant water resources. Water falls from the sky, it runs from our hoses and taps, and it flows across landscapes of breathtaking beauty. Our water supply issues aren't even approaching those of many other countries.

We are by no means in a crisis, but we are at a crossroads. Particularly, but not exclusively, in southern parts of the country, water shortages are already putting on the pressure.

This January, Environment Canterbury recorded the lowest water levels ever in aquifers beneath the Canterbury Plains.

In Marlborough, water shortages are affecting plans for vineyard plantings.

Electricity generators are keeping a way eye on the Pukaki and Tekapo hydro lakes, where combined storage levels are dropping to those of the power crises of 1992 and 2001.

More than half of our rivers and lakes have some level of degradation because of nutrient runoff from farming and forestry.

There are various reasons for these trends, including the increasing demands of irrigation, hydroelectricity, and other industry, and historically, the lack of a managed programme for water use or allocation.

Today, the Resource Management Act and the Sustainable Water Programme of Action are giving regional councils the authority and the tools to manage water allocation and plan for water use in the face of changing environmental pressures. The Clean Stream Accord is addressing the problem of pollution from agricultural discharge.

The Water Awareness Campaign supports these programmes. It encourages all of us to start thinking about the water we use and take for granted every day, and how we can take more responsibility, in our daily lives, for water conservation.

Some of the figures might surprise you.

Next time you pull on your favourite t-shirt, spare a thought for the seven thousand litres of water that were needed to grow the cotton. Next time you bite into a quarter-pounder burger, give thanks not just to the cow, but to also to the 11,000 litres of water that were needed to grow its feed. (That's the feed per burger, not per cow).

A pint of beer or a glass of wine takes 250 litres of water to produce, while a glass of brandy needs 20 thousand. Brushing your teeth, if you leave the tap running, sends five litres of water down the plughole; watering the flowerbeds with a garden hose uses 250 litres of water every five minutes.

It's this kind of wastage the campaign is highlighting, along with giving advice on easy ways to conserve thousands of litres of water every year. There's more on the Ministry for the Environment website (a name that reflects the concept of New Zealand having four million careful owners).

You may have already seen the billboards and advertisements for the Water Awareness Campaign, in which fully clothed people stand up to their waists in rivers and lakes. (If they look distinctly uncomfortable, that's because they are. The photos were taken in winter, under controlled and supervised conditions, and are in no way intended to promote the joys of winter swimming in heavy clothing!)

As well as being attention grabbing, the photos convey the message that just as our bodies are two-thirds water, so water is a vital component of the planet that gives us life. has stories about community projects to preserve water, ways that Kiwis from different walks of life have become more water-conscious, and links to regional council websites for information on local initiatives.

In the face of global problems such as those highlighted in Stockholm, it can be easy to think that individual actions can't make a difference. Easy, but wrong.

Fix that dripping tap and save 60,000 litres of water a year – don't forget to check outside taps, as well. Cut your morning shower from ten to five minutes, and save 75 litres a day. Replace your bath with a five-minute shower, and you'll save around 125 litres.

Get a trigger nozzle for your garden hose, or even better bury a 'seeping' hose so the water reaches the plant roots and doesn’t spray wastefully over the leaves. Either is better than using a sprinkler.

Wash the car and house windows from a bucket, instead of a hose. Rinse dishes in a bowl, instead of under a running tap – the same goes for washing your hands, or peeling vegetables. Challenge your kids to think up ways of using less water. The accumulation of small, everyday actions does, quite literally, change the world.

Our economy, our national identity, and our recreational and family lives are all intimately connected to our rivers and lakes. New Zealand has some of the most beautiful waterways in the world, but we can't assume they'll stay that way without our care.

No, we are not in crisis, but we are at a crossroads. Let's go in the right direction.


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