Where is the water?

  • Opinion
  • 04/09/2019

By Mike Chapman.

OPINION: I've just returned from a holiday in Europe and Morocco.

One of the hot topics up there is water, or the lack of water. This is because there has been less rainfall than usual over the last two seasons. The result is that water storage is running at very low levels, aquifers are not being replenished like they were in previous years, and - where there is no irrigation or irrigation with insufficient water - food production is down.

This is not just a Northern Hemisphere problem as those of you who have visited Sydney recently will know. Water restrictions have been in place there for a number of years and the dams supplying the city are at historically low levels.

I spent time in both Germany and Morocco. These countries have very different approaches to water supply for food production. In the past Germany has enjoyed a moderate climate, where the aquifers have been replenished during winter and regular summer rain has watered their broad acre crops such as wheat, barley, corn (maize), sugar beets, fodder crops (replacing potatoes) with corn for biomass being the most profitable crop today.

In Germany, there is little water storage and only high value crops are irrigated. As a result, the current lack of rain is having a dramatic effect on production simply because there is no significant water storage or irrigation.

Morocco is a vastly more arid environment. Their towns and cities have been located near water sources and, where there is no water available, canals and water storage were constructed centuries ago. There are some enormous dams just to provide water for food production. Their well-planned water supply has enabled continued production of food even in today's very dry conditions.

An empty dam in Morocco.
An empty dam in Morocco. Photo credit: Supplied/HortNZ

This has reduced the water in the dams and ponds significantly (see picture) as they have not been topped up over the last two dry seasons. As water has been relatively plentiful in the past, flood irrigation is the most common method used where a paddock of fruit trees, vegetable or crops is flooded with water. This is a most inefficient use of water, especially in such a dry climate.

Both Germany and Morocco export their excess food supplies and so far, have been able to meet domestic demand for food. This situation will change if the very dry conditions continue and there is every indication that this will happen, which will create a shortage of food, not only in these two countries but across Europe.

In my opinion, these developments signal a dramatic change to how New Zealand will need to adapt to feed not only itself but to help feed the world. The first impact will be an increase in the price of our fresh fruit and vegetables as there will be less grown globally due to the lack of water.

The second impact will be on what we grow and when we grow it. However, both these impacts will be water dependent. Those with water to grow food will be able to claim higher prices and grow crops that produce the most value.

New Zealand needs to note that we are in a global market. No longer will food supply and price be determined on an in-country basis. The price for fresh food in New Zealand will be determined globally. Price increases will be needed to fund both water storage and irrigation infrastructure.

The key ingredient for continued food production is water. This is something New Zealand still gets during winter in plentiful quantity. But the impact of climate change is making our summers a lot drier.

The result is we need to be able to access water during summer - our prime growing months - to continue our food production. This will require water storage and aquifer recharging during times of plentiful rainfall.

Later this week the Government will announce its fresh water reforms. My fear is that these reforms will be based on our past history of plentiful rain in summer. They will not look to the future and not provide for water storage and aquifer recharging during winter.

Backward looking policy will not enable New Zealand to have the water it needs to feed itself and also to help feed the world. Our water reforms need to focus on a future where water is in short supply and where food production needs to be enabled not restricted.

That is my plea to the Government: plan for a future where water is not plentiful or face a very hungry future.

Mike Chapman is Chief Executive of Horticulture NZ.