Why Christchurch Should NOT Become the Next Barcelona

Newsroom’s David Williams is cataloguing the growing concerns in Canterbury about the safety of their drinking water. So far the focus is on private wells, but if Cantabrians looked to the lessons of European cities like Barcelona they should be worried about where things are headed.

In 2008, Barcelona built a desalination plant to take the salt out of ocean water. It was very expensive and energy intensive and was paid for by the people of Barcelona. And it wasn’t needed. There was plenty of water for the city to drink, but nitrate levels from intensive pig farming in the region of Catalonia had made their water undrinkable.

The parallels with Canterbury are numerous. Both cities lie on fertile plains, with plenty of land and water. While we have a love affair with milk, the Spanish are passionate about pork.

As Catalan pig farming grew, the question arose of what to do with the resulting sewage. At first, the pig farmers put it in the rivers, which threatened the drinking supply. So the people paid the pig farmers to collect the sewage and spread it on the land. Eventually, the sheer volume of pig farming meant the land couldn’t use all the nutrients. Once again, it ended up leaching into the rivers. Almost half of ground water in Catalonia is now unfit to drink.

Instead of asking pig farmers to pay for the true cost of their operations, the local government opted to bear it instead. Among other initiatives, it built the desalination plant and spread the €6million annual cost over Catalonia’s taxpayers. They now pay for expensive water so they can have cheap pork.

It’s a bizarre situation that’s blatantly unfair and economically insane. Instead of dealing with the cause of the problem, they have opted to pay more to put a band-aid over it. It is a classic example of privatising profits and socialising losses.

This is the future of the Canterbury Plains if we keep going in the direction we are headed. Already the land can’t absorb all the nutrients being spread on it, which is why nitrate levels in ground-water are rising. We should have seen the warning signs long ago when the environmental problems emerged, but now the basic human right of clean drinking water is threatened.

We need to learn from Barcelona and deal with the cause of the problem, instead of paying even more for a band-aid.

No one has the right to pollute our fresh water. Cantabrians need to decide what pollution and water use limits are acceptable to them. Then, market-based instruments should be put in place to reward farmers who operate in an environmentally friendly way and encourage the rest to transition to sustainable farming practices.

We simply cannot continue with business as usual.