09.08.2016 : Letitcia Jarrett

What price do we put on our most precious resource?

Water is now considered more valuable than oil. We need to make some significant decisions about how to manage this resource.

Water - We can’t live without it! It makes up 50-65% of our body and we would only survive for three days without it. It is a non-negotiable human need.

Over the past century, the worldwide demand for water has tripled and it is currently doubling roughly every twenty-one years. This is clearly unsustainable and the places that will be hit hardest, are places that are already having serious water shortages. The scarcity of water world-wide is becoming an increasing concern!

However, despite its scarcity, water can be easily transported around the globe; moving across a global market which operates 24 hours a day and competes beyond boundaries. It is our most valuable resource and it’s now considered more valuable than oil.

We need to decide whether we’re happy for the market to determine its value, or if we should regulate it through other legislative mechanisms.

This means we need to make some significant decisions about how to manage this resource and what value we will place on it (monetary or amenity), or if we protect it through legislation. These discussions are already occurring, and public pressure is growing.

In New Zealand, in the last five years there has been a step change in public awareness of the finite nature of our water resources. The subsequent public reaction to water allocation, as the demand for water rises, has received a lot of publicity. In short, the general public are more educated and concerned about the impacts of water scarcity than in previous times, which is requiring regulatory authorities to think carefully.

In Canterbury, it has been reported that consent holders, with restricted rights to take set amounts of water, are exceeding the provisions of their consents. Coupled with the recent public outcry following consent to take water in Ashburton and bottle it for sale internationally, it is no wonder the community is uniting their voices of concern. This is off the back of earlier public debates in Hawkes Bay, which saw large volumes of water being allocated to a water supply scheme; locking the resource for a finite period of time to parties willing to pay the price to access the water.

There is also evidence that some irrigation schemes are extracting water beyond their consenting limits. This highlights another concern. Under the current legislation with the staff and resources available, how can we effectively monitor and pre-emptively enforce the limits that have been set for water takes? Which leads to the question, if we cannot manage the existing takes under the current system, how do we facilitate growth in the economy and protect the natural resource going forward?

This is not an issue that will resolve itself. Peter Anderson, Forest and Bird's Senior Legal Counsel stated in a recent Otago Daily Times article, “These are serious environmental crimes that are punishable by fines and prison sentences under the Resource Management Act”.

This type of publicity and concern is further fuelling an already hot topic. It is only a matter of time before central government directives and on-the-ground policy implementations change the playing field, and require the resources to be increasingly more efficient and accountable.

How do we currently value our resource?

The current regional allocation scheme in New Zealand, although not technically charging a price for water, does charge for consents, and monitoring and compliance recording. This cost forms part of the decision that companies undertake to determine how and where they will develop, and/or undertake their activity.

Another mechanism the market is using to ‘value’ or ‘price’ water, is the price of the land parcels and their consents ‘rights’ to take and discharge water. The market is aware of the value these resources currently have, for example to feed stock which then produce milk, meat, cheese or bottled water for arguments sake.

What decisions need to be made?

We need to decide if water is a commodity to be traded? It seems that the time has come to have the conversation and make an active decision. We either agree on a trade mechanism to establish a value, or allow the market to set its own price based on supply and demand.

In saying this, will New Zealand companies be priced out of the market? And who will hold the rights to the resources flowing beneath our feet?

How do we support the decision makers to understand the crux of the issue and then facilitate the necessary change? And how do we support the public and private business to prepare for, and navigate the impending change?

Before we answer these questions, we need to decide what is acceptable as a country…referendum anyone? Or has that flag already been flown?

About the Author

Letitcia Jarrett

Senior Planner

Letitcia works with multi-disciplinary teams to obtain consents for wastewater treatment plants, water dams, water supply schemes and water takes throughout New Zealand. She is passionate about the work she does in promoting the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities in the present and for the future.

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