What to do with Water Bottlers

I would imagine the reaction of most New Zealanders would be pretty similar if you said it’s a good idea to allow overseas companies to bottle and sell our fresh water, and that they shouldn’t have to pay for it.

As it happens, this is exactly what our current regulations allow, and the recent decision to let a Chinese water bottling giant to purchase land in order to expand their existing Otakiri Springs plant is just another in a long list taking advantage of our lax regulations.  

From the point of view of the Overseas Investment Office, the proposal ticks all the right boxes. All that remains is for the consent to be granted by council, which seems likely to happen. This would then allow Creswell NZ Ltd - a subsidiary of Chinese bottling giant Nonfu Spring to draw 1.1 billion litres of water a year from the springs, with most of it being exported to China.

Of course, the $42.5 million in infrastructure investment and 60 jobs over four years is certainly a boon for the region, and as long as the environmental impacts are accounted for and the ecological health of the spring is not impacted, there’s nothing strictly wrong with the operation. But, it’s nothing short of crazy that we are simply giving the water away. 

If it was as simple as slapping a price on water there’s no doubt commercial users would already be paying, but doing so would imply that there were in fact property rights over fresh water, which would raise the question of who owned it.

Article Two of the Treaty of Waitangi is pretty clear (in both the English and Maori versions) – unless the Crown purchased something off the Maori society, we must assume that Maoridom still owns it. At no point has the Crown bought the fresh water resource off Maori.

This point was made clear during the fisheries settlement in the early 1990s. The Crown had recently given out property rights over the fisheries resource under the quota management system, overlooking the question of who really owned the fish. As has become the hallmark of Maori magnanimity – evidenced by their settling for 1½ cents in the dollar for their Waitangi claims – Maori again offered a generous settlement with the fisheries, receiving 20% of the fisheries rights when arguably they had a right to them all. As they have made clear on numerous occasions, ultimately for Maori these are issues about protecting the mana of Maori as treaty signatory, it’s not about taking ownership of the entire resource for pecuniary benefit. And of course we’ve seen this play out like this with the seabed and foreshore, where Maori finally have been accorded the courtesy of being able to establish their customary rights and government withdraw its arrogant and false assertion that it “owned” that resource.

Interestingly, Labour were initially willing to acknowledge such rights, with their plan to introduce a water tax. While not perfect, this was certainly an improvement on the current situation where nobody owns water and de facto rights are given by consent (you can read our full breakdown of their tax here). However, their plans were dropped during coalition talks with New Zealand First, the owners of politics’ most regressive environmental policies. Had the Labour plan for a water tax made it through, we would not only be the recipients of a significant amount of capital investment, but also a considerable windfall for government and Iwi coffers. Instead, we have to settle for giving our precious water away for free.

Nothing to Fear

The Opportunities Party’s policy is to allow the market to determine the value of fresh water in any catchment. So once the household use, customary use and environment protection levels are accounted for, then the surplus is up for tender. The proceeds go to the environmental protection agencies. This is intellectually significantly more robust than arbitrarily placing a charge on commercial use of fresh water – which was the Green Party policy. Of course TOP’s approach would raise the issue of a Treaty settlement, but we shouldn’t be afraid of that. A portion of the revenue raised through the commercial process would be used to compensate Maori as part of a settlement. Like the rest of us, Iwi want to see our rivers and lakes restored, so they will be active partners in that process. Such a settlement would be a win-win. You can see a more detailed outline in our Clear Water Action Plan. 

Letting the market determine the value of freshwater – remember in some catchments there will be an abundance and hence it will remain “free” - will ensure that the New Zealand public gets some benefit from all the commercial uses of water – hydro electricity, manufacturing, irrigation and water bottling. Water bottlers could be charged a higher rate given the quality of the water they are taking. Commercial water users should be paying to clean up our waterways, not the taxpayer.

At the same time we would resolve the issue of who owns our fresh water, which would allow us to get on with the business of cleaning it up. This will no doubt be a difficult process to go through, but that short-term pain will be worth the long-term gain of healthy waterways. 

Andrew Courtney 

Andrewc@top.org.nz


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