CATHERINE DELAHUNTY: Water bottling shows how unfair it is to give water away for free

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink, the saying goes. It’s a situation that New Zealand is staring down the barrel of. We’re a country rich in water with high rainfall in parts, but our attitude to water means we’re at risk of not having enough to go around in the future.

Some are having to do without it now.

Recently, Te Matatini kapa haka festival had to buy bottles of water for people because the drinking water supply was so polluted with e. coli bacteria, it was too dirty to drink. Ironically, the brand they bought was HB Water – bottled locally from an unpolluted source. Why should people have to pay for water because their water has been polluted, when a bottling company down the road can bottle and sell water for free?

Take a look at Otakiri Springs in the Bay of Plenty. The company pays $2003 a year to the local council and in return can take 700,000 l a day of pure, clean water to bottle and sell. At that rate, the company can make around $255 million a year.

Nick Smith might argue that water bottling accounts for a tiny percentage of water resources in this country, but ignores the fact that there is a disconnect between the water being served up to communities for drinking and swimming that is being polluted by industry and dried up by irrigation, and the pure artesian water that companies can take for free to sell at a premium. Even oil companies have to pay a royalty when they suck oil out of the ground, why shouldn’t water users?

We’re pleased that the Government is hinting it may look at charging for water, but whether they follow through with a plan that actually protects our water from pollution and extraction remains to be seen. So far, they’ve failed to protect water as badly as they’ve ‘fixed’ the housing crisis in Auckland.

So what would we do about it? We think a commercial charge for the use of water is a sensible solution that will encourage more prudent and sustainable use than we are seeing at the moment. It would acknowledge the rights that tangata whenua have in water, as guaranteed by Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and the revenue raised by the charge can then be cycled back into water quality and habitat restoration programmes.

We would have a fair system, that doesn’t create water barons or create situations in which rights can be held for generations, locking out manawhenua and smaller operators from accessing water. It would be a win-win all round – good for the environment and good for people. Water is a finite and precious resource, and a simple charge on its commercial use would ensure that our economy is based on long-term sustainability, not short-term exploitation.