Opinion: Where's the water infrastructure?

  • Opinion
  • 05/03/2020

By Mike Chapman.

OPINION: Can anyone deny that we need to urgently start capturing and storing water?  Before we forget about the effects of the drought on New Zealand, it's time for the Government and regional councils to commit to enabling water capture and storage. 

There are three obstacles to water storage: money to build, 10 to 15 years to get regulatory consent, and people who do not understand the importance of water for human, animal and plant life and New Zealand's economic prosperity. 

Water is needed for everything and we have an abundance of it.  Central government has a key role to play with the provision of loans to enable the building of water storage.  We have seen how the Provincial Growth Fund has helped in some areas of New Zealand but much more is needed than support for schemes in some places.

Now's the time to get serious and recognise that a lack of water storage is one of the biggest threats to New Zealand's financial sustainability.  This situation provides the case for a comprehensive strategic infrastructure plan that identifies where the areas of most need are.  It also needs to be recognised that this is both an urban and rural challenge. 

New Zealand's driest areas are also the most populated.  The need for more urban water is taking more and more water away from rural New Zealand.  At this point, we need to remember that rural New Zealand is the country's economic powerhouse, contributing just under $50 billion in export earnings.  Without those earnings, there would be no hospitals, roads, education and welfare, and so on. 

The crucial point is it is almost too late to invest in the rural sector so that both urban and rural New Zealand has water.  But in many respects, the aversion to water storage is crazy because, according to NIWA, 80 percent of the rain that falls in New Zealand washes out to sea so in simple terms, we waste 80 percent of our water. 

HortNZ's call is for a New Zealand-wide strategic plan that identifies both urban and rural water needs, and to get on with building that water storage across the country with no further delay.

If you are questioning the need for water storage, just recall those towns in New Zealand that have run out of water this year: Kaitaia and Waihi.  And if you think this is exceptional, think about the Australian bush fires, and Cape Town in South Africa running out of water.

New Zealand has been given a warning that our climate is changing.  Some parts of the country are getting drier and will continue to do so.  Getting on with water storage is not just about the rural sector.  It is about having enough water for humans.

Then there is the second issue: the time it takes to get even a small water storage scheme consented.  There is simply just too much Resource Management Act (RMA) red tape and this comes at enormous expense.  Reform is in progress and speedier provisions are being developed for housing, but the equally critical issue is speedier provisions for water storage. 

A simple solution to making this work would be to require the councils to pay for the cost of getting consents for water storage.  If this cost was to come off councils' bottom line and provide water for ratepayers to drink, I can only imagine how much faster the process would become.

Then there are those that object.  Water storage plays a vital environmental role.  During heavy rain, water would be captured and would prevent flooding and erosion.  During drought, water would be released to maintain river flows.  This scenario alone is reason enough for water storage to be the number one environmental priority for New Zealand. 

Plus, what are we going to drink to stay alive?  The argument that water storage will result in a worse environment through greater rural use is emotive and not factual: controlled water use is pro the environment.  We can do more to enable controlled use and we are doing that, but it is not the reason to say no to water storage.  If we do not have a solid performing rural economy, we will also not have a healthy urban economy.

So, we've had the warning and now is nearly too late.  The Government and councils need to act without delay to ensure New Zealand's environmental, social, cultural and economic sustainability.  'Waste not want not' before it is too late.

Mike Chapman is Chief Executive of Horticulture NZ