Smith can’t bot­tle up debate on sell­ing wa­ter

Nelson Mail - - COMMENT&OPINION - TRACY WATKINS Po­lit­i­cal Week

If Nick Smith thinks it’s far­ci­cal for peo­ple to get up­set about wa­ter then Na­tional could be in deep trou­ble come elec­tion time. When gov­ern­ments start say­ing ‘‘we know best’’ is when vot­ers start shop­ping around for change.

It’s not hard to see why wa­ter has be­come such an emo­tive is­sue. Bil­lions of litres of wa­ter from some of the most pristine parts of New Zealand are be­ing bot­tled and ex­ported by for­eign com­mer­cial in­ter­ests. And, un­like land, which com­mands top dol­lars from for­eign buy­ers, they don’t have to pay us for the priv­i­lege be­cause wa­ter is free.

Smith might not ‘‘get it’’ at an in­tel­lec­tual level why peo­ple are up­set, but he should un­der­stand the emo­tion at a gut level. From his bully pul­pit in the Bee­hive, how­ever, the en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter seems ca­pa­ble of see­ing only rank ig­no­rance rather than the un­easy sense among Ki­wis that some­one has just pulled a swiftie on us.

Prime Min­is­ter Bill English’s pla­ca­tory lan­guage shows he is far more at­tuned to the pos­si­bil­ity of wa­ter turn­ing into the sort of sleeper is­sue that can de­rail an elec­tion. But Smith even man­aged to sab­o­tage that mes­sage by re­fus­ing to be­lieve jour­nal­ists who told him English said he was open to look­ing at the is­sue.

Whether it’s ra­tio­nal or not, peo­ple find some­thing ab­hor­rent about for­eign buy­ers be­ing able to take our wa­ter and flog it off over­seas for a big mark-up. It’s a raid on one of our most pre­cious re­sources. It cuts across our al­most spiritual view of wa­ter as some­thing that is held in trust for all New Zealan­ders, in the pub­lic good. It’s profit mak­ing off our 100 per cent pure brand by for­eign com­mer­cial in­ter­ests. And it of­fends peo­ple on even the most ba­sic level that the Gov­ern­ment seems happy to give away some­thing so pre­cious for the modern-day equiv­a­lent of beads and blan­kets.

Smith has a per­fectly log­i­cal re­sponse to all of these con­cerns. He points out that we use a mil­lion times more wa­ter for ir­ri­ga­tion, town wa­ter sup­ply and in­dus­try than for bot­tled ex­port. New Zealand’s an­nual fresh­wa­ter re­source is 500 tril­lion litres, of which 2 per cent, or 10 tril­lion litres, is ex­tracted, he says. Bot­tled wa­ter makes up 0.0001 per cent of that amount and the amount taken for that pur­pose was ac­tu­ally down in 2016 from the pre­vi­ous year, at 8.7 mil­lion litres.

Smith’s other de­fences are equally ra­tio­nal. There is – as he rightly points out – a real fair­ness prob­lem with charg­ing bot­tled wa­ter for ex­port, and not charg­ing other wa­ter users. And he is bang on about it be­ing an odd look to charge com­pa­nies pro­vid­ing a healthy prod­uct like wa­ter when beer mak­ers and soft-drink man­u­fac­tur­ers don’t pay a cent ei­ther.

As for farm­ing, it’s a Pan­dora’s box. Last year, Ash­bur­ton District Coun­cil pro­posed sell­ing a sec­tion in its busi­ness es­tate that came with con­sent to ex­tract 40 bil­lion litres of pure, arte­sian wa­ter from aquifers un­der the drought-prone Can­ter­bury town. The pro­posal sparked out­rage even though En­vi­ron­ment Can­ter­bury ar­gued the av­er­age dairy farm used more.

The con­sent would have al­lowed the new owner to take 45 litres of wa­ter per sec­ond, which is the amount needed to ir­ri­gate a 90ha dairy farm with about 321 cows, about half the av­er­age farm size. Each litre of milk takes on av­er­age 400 litres of wa­ter to pro­duce.

The out­rage over bot­tled wa­ter vs dairy farms is not as sim­ple as an ar­gu­ment about for­eign owned ver­sus New Zealand-owned. For ev­ery for­eign wa­ter-bot­tling com­pany there is an over­seas owned dairy farm or win­ery that also uses more.

Maybe they in­voke dif­fer­ent emo­tions be­cause in­dus­tries like wine and dairy­ing sup­port liveli­hoods on the land while bot­tled wa­ter mostly pumps up profit for cor­po­rates like Co­caCola.

Or maybe it’s just that farm­ing and viti­cul­ture take ef­fort and in­dus­try, while fill­ing a bot­tle with free wa­ter and flog­ging it off seems al­most crim­i­nally easy.

But what Smith won’t say – though oth­ers might – is be care­ful what you wish for. Be­cause put­ting a price on wa­ter opens up a far big­ger can of worms. That turns the ar­gu­ment into one about prop­erty and own­er­ship rights, in­clud­ing those of iwi. And if wa­ter rights are trade­able, should there be a pub­lic-good test, or should it be first come, first served? And how will any of this af­fect what house­holds pay for wa­ter?

If Na­tional is al­ready los­ing the ar­gu­ment over a few bot­tled-wa­ter plants, then a debate over who owns the wa­ter is the last thing it wants in an elec­tion year. The di­vi­sions would be just as deep as those carved by the fore­shore and seabed debate, and po­ten­tially even deeper with Win­ston Peters stir­ring the na­tion­al­is­tic pot on for­eign own­er­ship.

Nick Smith is of­ten touted as one of the big­gest brains around the Cabi­net ta­ble. Unfortunately, be­ing brainy has given Smith a tin ear on is­sues that get vot­ers most worked up. He thinks it means he can win ev­ery ar­gu­ment.

Labour thought it had right on its side over the fore­shore and seabed too, but it lost that ar­gu­ment and even the silly ones over things like phas­ing out old fash­ioned in­can­des­cent light bulbs.

Smith should re­mem­ber that be­fore blast­ing the bot­tled-wa­ter furore as far­ci­cal and a triv­ial dis­trac­tion. The bal­lot box is where vot­ers al­ways get the last word.

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