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Three Waters Review

Three Waters Review

Aotearoa Water Action

The government is currently undertaking a review of the way in which water, stormwater and wastewater services are delivered, regulated and funded (“the Three Waters Review”).

The major focus of course is on water, with much of the impetus being as a result of last year’s Havelock North contamination, and the report of the Inquiry that followed it.

Aotearoa Water Action (“AWA”) has an interest in the outcome of the Three Waters Review. Broadly, AWA’s key purpose is to support the rights of communities to abundant, clean and affordable water, and to manage their water resources in the interests of the community rather than corporate profit.

Water New Zealand, a lobby group that represents bureaucrats and private companies involved in the delivery and management of drinking water, is lobbying the Government and Councils in support of a more centralised system, that would be controlled by the people and organisations they represent, rather than by elected Councils.

The Minister of Local Government has recently conducted a fact-finding tour to Ireland and Scotland, both of which have in recent years adopted the single-desk model that Water NZ is pushing. It would be very disappointing if her enquiries did not take her further than those examples, neither of which represent anywhere near best practice in water delivery management.

The creation of Irish Water in 2014, accompanied by the introduction of a poorly thought out metering and charging regime and well justified fears of privatisation, resulted in mass protests across Ireland and an eventual Government backdown on the worst of its program.

Scottish Water was recently prosecuted and convicted for supplying water unfit for human consumption, while between 2005 and 2014 it was found guilty of 51 pollution offences, including one chlorine discharge that killed over 1000 young trout and salmon.

A far better example of best practice is the Dutch model where the country’s supply is provided by 10 publicly owned companies, which are largely internally regulated, but whose performance is rigorously benchmarked against the most important standards, including environmental standards. The Dutch supply is almost entirely unchlorinated yet provides some of the best quality water community drinking water in the world. Importantly, the Dutch Government recently passed a law prohibiting private enterprises from supplying community water.

The experience of the Netherlands, and other best practice examples such as Germany and Austria, proves that centralisation and chemicalisation are not essential features of a safe, high quality water supply system.

It is encouraging to see that this Government is addressing some of the serious issues that have put healthy community water supply at risk in Aotearoa/New Zealand, particularly chronic underfunding of infrastructure. However, the Review needs to look also at the threats to water safety that the Havelock North Inquiry and Water NZ have chosen to ignore. Intensive farming and the discharge of nutrients and contaminants into drinking water supplies, over exploitation by water bottlers and other environmentally destructive activities, and an over-reliance on chemical disinfection rather than good preventive practices.

It is also good to see that the Minister has ruled out privatisation of water delivery for now. But any centralised model featuring universal charging of consumers would provide a ready-made framework for privatisation, and as we know it would only take a handful of swinging voters to elect a Government which has historically aligned itself with the transfer of public assets and infrastructure into private hands.

Ultimately, any model needs to recognise that one size does not fit all and that communities are best placed to make decisions in their own interests. The financial support of central government, and the technical support of the scientific and engineering community should not be predicated on taking away communities’ rights to determine the way in which they manage and safeguard their drinking water supply for the benefit of their citizens and the environment. The fact that some of the players in this debate may have greater access to resources and influence should not be decisive in the outcome.


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