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Three Waters reworked into region-led reforms- Expert Reaction

The Government has unveiled its refresh of the reforms formerly known as Three Waters, announcing that 10 “regionally owned and led” public water entities will be established instead of the four previously proposed.

Each of the 10 entities will be owned by local councils and run by a “professional board.” The boards will be appointed and overseen by Regional Representative Groups which will retain 50-50 representation between councils and mana whenua.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Dr Carwyn Jones, Pūkenga Matua (Lead Academic), Ahunga Tikanga (Māori Laws and Philosophy), Te Wānanga o Raukawa, Honorary Adjunct Professor, Te Kawa a Māui (School of Māori Studies), Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, comments: 

“The key changes that have been announced to the government’s water infrastructure reforms (formerly known as ‘Three Waters’) is that there will now be ten regional water services entities, as opposed to the four entities originally provided for in the Water Services Entities Act 2022.

“Under the Act, each water services entity will be governed by a board that is appointed by a Regional Representative Group. Each Regional Representative Group must include an equal number of territorial authority representatives and mana whenua representatives.

“Although the greater number of entities now means that more territorial authorities will be able to appoint members to the Regional Representative Groups, the model of shared decision making authority has been maintained. This is an important aspect of the reforms and provides a mechanism to include the participation of mana whenua, who have distinct rights, interests, relationships, and experiences with water resources and the broader natural environment within their rohe. Sharing decision making at this level will contribute to better informed, more inclusive and more durable decisions. In this way, shared decision making will strengthen the legitimacy of these public institutions.

“However, this model of shared decision making is still well short of effective recognition of the relationship between the kāwanatanga and tino rangatiratanga spheres of authority that is envisaged in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Properly giving effect to Te Tiriti relationships would require shared decision making be expressed through all levels of the organisation. In the case of the proposed water services entities, this would mean decision making ought to be shared with mana whenua not only within the Regional Representative Group, but also at the governing board level.”

Conflict of interest: None declared 

Dr Lokesh P. Padhye, Senior Lecturer, Civil and Environmental Engineering, The University of Auckland, comments:

“I am pleased that the Government did not repeal the reforms, and I am optimistic that the new name and model will generate more community backing for them.

“Regrettably, the emphasis has been predominantly on governance and politics rather than on the necessity for reform. While some of the Government’s assertions may be questionable, I believe there is consensus for water reforms among those who know our water quality and infrastructure.

“Sticking to the ‘status quo’ is not an option, as reinforced by the Ministry for the Environment’s recent report on freshwater, which depicts a gloomy picture of New Zealand’s water ecosystem and its connection to the management of our three waters.

“The report reveals that almost 50% of New Zealand’s river length is unsuitable for swimming due to the risk of campylobacter infection, and over 4000 incidents of wastewater overflows are reported annually by wastewater service providers. These findings highlight the risks of neglecting pollution from sources such as run-offs and wastewater overflows, and the need to manage all three waters holistically.”

No conflicts of interest.