Shane Te Pou: We must adopt water reforms for the benefit of all


“Ko te wai ko au, ko au te wai” (“I am the water and the water is I”)

Water is one of our greatest taonga. It is a provider of life, a source of food, a means of travel, a part of our spirit. It is also a key to economic prosperity. This is true for Māori and non-Māori alike.

Growing up in Kawerau, our awa was Tarawera. We swam in it, drank from it, caught fish from it, relaxed on its banks. But we also polluted it. Like so many of our rivers, the Tarawera is subjected to industrial pollution and farm run-off. You don’t want to swim in the Tarawera downstream of all that.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s abundance of water and the fertile land it creates made it attractive to Māori and, later, Pākehā settlers. But a century and a half of draining of wetlands, felling of native forests, intensive farming, and industrialisation have not been kind to our water. Now, many rivers are unsafe to swim in, much of our water is unsafe to drink. Wild rivers have been concreted over, beautiful creeks have become “stormwater drains” that can’t handle the water volumes from climate change-induced storms, and sewage flows through ageing pipes ready to burst.

As Geoffrey Palmer said, ours is an “irredeemably pluvial country”, and it’s likely to only get more so as climate change continues, yet ensuring we have enough clean water to drink, can safely dispose of polluted water, and can cope with excess rain is no easy feat.

This is where the need for reform of the so-called “three waters” – drinking water, stormwater and wastewater – comes in.

Currently, responsibility for managing these three water systems is stretched beyond breaking point across 67 local authorities. It is hard for small councils to get the skilled staff needed to run these systems and the funding to build and maintain expensive infrastructure. It is tempting for any local government politician to promise lower rates, rather than investing in pipes that no one sees.

The result of decades of under-investment is towns needing to boil their drinking water, sewage pipes bursting in our cities, and flooding overwhelming stormwater infrastructure all over the country as happened last weekend.

Nanaia Mahuta’s proposal for three waters reform would bring the systems under the control of four regional bodies. Councils would retain a form of ownership over the assets, but they would be controlled and funded by these agencies.

These bodies will be responsible for the $120 billion to $185 billion of investment needed to maintain and improve our water systems over the next 30 years. This will mean better, more consistent water services across the country, particularly for poorer communities that can’t afford the infrastructure alone, while also lowering overall costs through efficiencies of scale.

The Department of Internal Affairs estimates the average household cost for water services in Auckland will be $1910 a year by 2050 without reform but only $800 if the reforms are implemented. For small, poor Kawerau it estimates a $2440 annual bill per household without reform, or $1220 with the reforms.

Of course, some councils are saying they won’t take part in the reforms. Some do not want to give up control and some wealthy councils are suspicious that they will end up subsidising their poorer neighbours. It is natural to have questions about the details of such a major reform. It’s unclear, for instance, exactly how the agencies will interact with councils and what role iwi will have.

We are all on these islands together. We need to share its wealth with each other, and protect and enhance its taonga for the future generations. That’s why it’s disappointing to see Phil Goff put these reforms at risk by signalling Auckland wants to go it alone. In saying he wants to “put Aucklanders’ needs first”, he’s espousing the kind of parochial thinking that would have infuriated him over decades as a national politician and party leader.

The reforms on the table look to be the best bet for sustainable, affordable, reliable water services in the decades to come.

For too long, we have treated water as an inexhaustible resource, rather than as a taonga. We have let our water infrastructure decay and break down, even as we impose greater and greater demands on it, and on the natural water cycle. The current system will not fix this; it is the cause of the problems.

Shane Te Pou (Ngai Tuhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist

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