There is something about the idea of taking our purest water, putting it into plastic bottles and shipping it overseas that just doesn’t seem right. Even less when the bottling company pays nothing for the water. The final straw is when it isn’t even a NZ company.
This has become a big issue in our district, among other places. The local owners of Otakiri Springs, which takes water of exceptional quality from the Otākiri aquifer, have decided to sell to Nongfu Spring Natural Mineral Water. Some locals, including neighbouring property owner and councillor Mike van der Boom, are objecting. The mayor, Tony Bonne, has welcomed it, saying it will provide jobs for the district. The issue reflects a growing national conflict around water rights and raises a number of questions that are worth exploring in more depth.
Otakiri Springs currently has a consent to take 1200 m3 (1,200,000 L) of water per day specifically for bottling. One report has Nongfu wanting to expand that to 5000m3. It costs them $2003 per year for administration costs on the consent, but they pay nothing for the actual water. The potential turnover with the current consent is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
To put it in context, a random survey of water consents on the Rangitaiki Plains shows that there are dairy farms with much bigger daily allocations than 1200 m3. Dairy farming covers 80% of the plains and at least 10% of the plains is under irrigation. Like the water bottlers, farmers pay consent administration costs but nothing for the water that they use.
Is farming a better use than drinking? The water bottling takes a litre of water, puts it in a plastic bottle and ships it overseas. Dairying, on the other hand, takes close to 1000L of water to make 1L milk, although most of that is not from irrigation. One estimate suggests that across NZ as a whole about 160L of irrigation water go into each L of milk – although it varies from region to region. Ironically most of that milk is dried into powder and exported.
Water bottling has some serious environmental impacts, mostly from the waste from single use plastic bottles. Milk also comes in disposable containers – either plastic bottles or non-recyclable tetrapacks – but has some added environmental problems. Pastoral farming, as a whole, and dairy farming, in particular, is probably the most significant cause of New Zealand’s most serious environmental problems, from climate change to water degradation to soil loss.
Just this January a permanent warning has gone up not to eat pipi from the Waiotahe estuary due to contamination from local dairy farms. While many farmers are trying their best to reduce their environmental impacts, the sheer scale of dairy farming and the increasing intensification (often associated with irrigation) overwhelms these individual efforts.
On the other hand, dairy farming has more significant economic benefits than water bottling. The dairy industry supports a whole load of spin-off businesses that feed money through the local economy. Dairy farms also provide local jobs. Nongfu claims there will be 50 jobs in the bottling plant but it is hard to take that seriously. 50 jobs building the plant, maybe, but once it is up and running no doubt it will be an automated operation with a skeleton crew to oversee and maintain it. There is very little in the way of a supporting industry sector around water bottling.
Probably one of the things that concerns most people, and is the spark for the current debate, is the foreign ownership. Once Otakiri Springs is sold, all the profits will all be siphoned off-shore. This is also true for the increasing number of dairy farms owned off-shore. I do not believe that it is wise to allow New Zealand’s most precious resources – our land and our water – to be owned by overseas interests. I do not oppose all overseas investment, which can bring substantial benefits in terms of new capital, technology transfer and economic diversification. It is an argument for some limits.
The second major issue is the free use of our best water. It is a fallacy to say, as the Government does, that water is owned by no one. Water is owned by everyone, including the non-human users of it. It is a common wealth and should be treated as such, by making sure that anyone who makes a profit from water pays a resource rental back to the community. The rate would be fairly low, but high quality water, for example from the Otakiri aquifer, should attract a higher charge than non-potable water from shallow aquifers.
A resource rental has two benefits. Firstly it puts a price on commercial use of water. This drives more efficient use, in terms of water conservation and also in terms of shifting to higher value uses. There is little reason to use water efficiently when you pay nothing for it.
Secondly, a resource rental generates a fund that can be used in a variety of ways. It could off-set rates, to compensate for the new costs. Alternatively, it could be used to fund the management and restoration of our waterways, administered by a community organisation comprising mana whenua, commercial users, recreational users and environmentalists.
There is not much that can be done about any of this by the local council. The Regional Council deals with water consents and their hands are more or less tied by national legislation. To resolve it will take courage and leadership from the Government. I am not holding my breath.
(Published in the Whakatane Beacon 10 March 2017)