This week I hosted a public meeting at EIT in Hawkes Bay to discuss how we might put a price on the commercial use of water, so that water may be valued and treated more sustainably. I invited a great panel of speakers from a range of backgrounds. I was unsure how concerned people would be but when more than 100 people turned up it was clear that this is a major regional concern as well as a national issue.
The panel had five speakers; Dr Adele Whyte (CEO Ngāti Kahungunu Inc), Chris Keenan (Horticulture NZ), Regional Councillor Peter Beaven, Labour MP Stuart Nash and economist Peter Fraser. Each person had a strong angle on the subject of a commercial charge. Ngāti Kahungunu made it clear that their right to water was not at anyone’s expense but any allocation had to include their ability to protect water and have economic use. It’s worth noting they have just spent $100,000 in the courts insisting that the Regional Council cannot compromise the sustainability of the Heretaunga aquifer, a victory that will benefit us all.
Chris Keenan was able to describe the mismanagement of water in California and the need to protect water for food production but also for all its values. He feels we have made progress through the collaborative processes but need to address pricing issues. Peter Beavan and Stuart Nash both challenged the water bottlers and said we should put up to 2c a litre of exported water for the benefit of the region and its environment. Peter Fraser outlined what happens when a commodity that is also a scarce resource has no value on it.
I then facilitated audience discussion where a number of people spoke about the need for regional benefit from water sale bit also the inconsistencies and risks in models of pricing water. One risk I see is that so much water is now over allocated and polluted and if we put a levy on it and allow it to be sold, regional authorities will ignore sustainability as they become dependent on that money. Many people challenged the Chair and CEO of the Regional Council who were both present to do better in water issues including management of the proposed Ruataniwha Dam, and also called for better national leadership.
It was clear that the pricing of water is controversial, as some of the audience fear commodification of a taonga. My heart is with them, but the horse has bolted and water is being sold and traded without fair rules or attention to sustainability or Te Tiriti rights. This public meeting could not solve all these issues but it gave us all a lot to think about in terms of developing just mechanisms and protecting our future in a context of water demand and climate change.