New water organisations to be owned locally – Expert Reaction

Local councils will own the proposed four new water entities – and local voices will be strengthened, the government has confirmed today.

As part of transforming how the three waters services are managed, the government has responded to a working group, taking up most of its advice. One new change is the principle of Te Mana o te Wai – the health and wellbeing of our waterways and waterbodies – to apply across the water services system.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news.

Professor Troy Baisden, Principal Investigator, Te Pūnaha Matatini; co-president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists; Honorary Prof. School of Environment, University of Auckland; and Affiliate at Motu Research, comments:

“The Government has announced its position on the next steps of the Three Waters Reform Programme, following a series of Working Group recommendations. Today’s Three Waters announcements focus almost entirely on governance to support improved future investment in infrastructure. Yet, it is important to remember that health and the environment are the underpinning drivers for the reform. The debate around the complex governance arrangements in the Three Waters Reform can be grounded in practical examples of risk and contamination that affect people’s lives and the environment.

“Let’s remember that the Three Waters being discussed here – drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater – are the aspects of water management that governments or companies contracted by the government can control. There are much wider reforms going on in related areas where the government has limited control but can use regulatory powers, including the Resource Management Act’s balancing of issues such as building, freshwater, and climate change risks.

“New Zealand’s performance on the Three Waters has been poor by the standards of peer nations: for every success that can be pointed to as a case to retain the status quo there are multiple failures. The news is full of water main bursts in our cities and accidental discharges of raw sewage into freshwater and harbours around population centres. Media announcements and signs announcing contamination hazards from swimming and other recreation are relatively common in our daily lives and very apparent to tourists. About 20% of drinking water is lost to leaks, and this amount exceeds half the water supplied in some areas.

“A recent report keeps a systematic count of these problems, and the lack of improvement. For those who argue their locality has managed its water systems well, we should ask how the impacts of climate change and demands of denser urban centres are considered in that analysis.

“We also need to think back to the once-in-a-generation disasters such as the Havelock North drinking water incident that sickened most of a large town. The second inquiry delving into that disaster concluded that New Zealand had lost track of the fundamental principles recognised internationally for drinking water management. For example, there should always be multiple barriers to contamination, so that if one barrier fails, further barriers provide total or partial protection.

“When limited investment is available and there’s a focus on operational rules, the key principles can be lost in line-by-line budget cuts, leaving systems that are risky and lack future-proofing. Continuing along that path would leave us with big problems in decades to come, both for Three Waters as important services, and impacts on health and the environment. Overall, a focus on key principles can play an important role in relating multiple reforms and making them work.

“Today’s announcement contains one main environmental principle – Te Mana o Te Wai. This is a unique New Zealand concept of recognising the paramount importance of water in the health of people and the environment.

“Much will hinge on the success of Te Mana o Te Wai as a guiding principle, integrating internationally accepted principles for each of the Three Waters with principles from te Ao Māori. Te Mana o Te Wai also connects underlying processes that drive impacts on environment and health across multiple legislative and governance reforms currently. When looking at the planned changes in governance and investment, I encourage people and communities to find the underlying examples from historic failures, such as Havelock North, and their own environment and experiences that matter to them.

No conflict of interest. Professor Troy Baisden is an environmental scientist working on complex systems primarily linked to freshwater and climate change issues, affiliated with Motu (Affiliate), Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence (Principal Investigator), and the University of Auckland School of Environment (Honorary Professor). 

Dr Lokesh Padhye, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Auckland, comments:

“The New Zealand water sector needs reforms, and there is not much debate in the science and engineering community that the status quo is not working when it comes to improving water quality and water management practices. The success of these reforms will rely on how the reforms are structured, aka the Three Waters model.

“The government-established Working Group has provided some excellent suggestions to the Government in that regard. It is good to see that the Government has taken most of the recommendations on board.

“I believe recommendations 42-46 will significantly impact the success of these reforms. Without sufficient financial backing and resources available to newly formed water services entities, fixing water issues will be an impossible task. So the Government needs to be engaged throughout.

“I suggest carrying out a comprehensive review, rather than an interim one, five years after the reforms take effect. Ten years is too long of a timeframe if the system is not working for such an important issue related to our environmental health.”

No conflict of interest declared.