Water bottles. Photo by Thad Zadjowicz CC BY 2.0
Water bottles. Photo by Thad Zadjowicz CC BY 2.0

Disconnected thinking dirties the water

Iain Rabbitts’ belief that drinking water quality, charging for water use and the land use that leads to water quality degradation should be treated separately is part of the problem we have right now in this country. The connection is painfully clear to the people I meet as I travel around the country, visiting rivers and those who love them, on my campaign to highlight the issues our waterways face.

The Hawke’s Bay has experienced a perfect storm of these issues recently; the water in Havelock North taps made more than 3000 people sick, so many bought bottled water to ensure their safety. The finger has been pointed by Dr Gil Zemansky at the Tukituki River as a possible source of contamination – a river that struggles to cope with the level of pollution and overuse it is forced to endure now, that is also faced with further pollution if the Ruataniwha dam goes ahead. We can’t ignore the idea that contaminated drinking water and rivers at risk from worsening pollution are linked.

You try telling the people of Ashburton that the three issues are separate. Rural water bores in mid-Canterbury regularly breach the safe limit for nitrates, which puts bottle-fed babies and pregnant women at risk. The source of the nitrates? Agricultural intensification. At the same time, the local council is trying to flog off a piece of land with a bore that would take water from a deep aquifer, that the owner can then bottle and sell overseas. It’s pretty clear from this example, all three issues are linked.

Charging for water has struck a nerve because people are increasingly aware that clean, fresh water is a precious resource everywhere, including in this country, and water bottling without a fee for taking the water is offensive to many people. Certainly the amounts are small compared to the huge quantities irrigators also use, but exporting this resource in plastic bottles without a fee has angered many people.

The issue of water quality underlies all these issues. Iain Rabbitts argues that we should not challenge agricultural polluters because they are important to the economy and that this issue is not connected to drinking water or pricing water use. He is out of step with even the Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, who has repeatedly acknowledged that diffuse nitrogen from agriculture is the biggest challenge in cleaning up water.

He is also out of step with leading agricultural advisers such as Dr Alison Dewes and freshwater scientists such as Dr Russell Death and Dr Mike Joy. While everyone is joining the dots and asking the tough questions, Iain Rabbitts is arguing for a silo approach to water issues, which was how we got here in the first place.

The public are looking for leadership on water issues which is why the Green Party is advocating charges for those who profit from water such as irrigators and water bottling companies. We think you shouldn’t get sick from taking a dip in your local river, and so we’d change the Government’s flimsy water quality standards to ensure our rivers are safe for swimming. We’d invest in better sewerage systems, and smarter design to reduce stormwater pollution in our urban streams and rivers.

If sources of water are clean, and water is valued and protected, we can start to trust drinking water and jump into our rivers again. If we charge for commercial use of water, the funds could be shared between hapu and iwi and Councils for restoration projects. If we support the farmers who are reducing nutrient pollution from their farms and stop dairy conversions, we can start to address the impact on waterways of 10 million cattle.

Most of us know that the state of our water is in crisis, and that humans have abused this gift. A coherent integrated planning approach to sustaining water is vital. Swimmable rivers, safe drinking water and protecting not exporting this resource are all connected to the uncomfortable fact that we live downstream of the waters we have polluted. Everything in the natural world is connected, and only connected thinking based on respect for water will address these issues.


Photo by Thad Zadjowicz CC BY 2.0