Why the Government Won’t Charge Water Bottlers

Around New Zealand today there will be protests about fresh water. And rightly so, our once wonderful rivers and lakes are now degraded, particularly in lowland areas. To add insult to injury, businesses are allowed to take what little pure water is left in our aquifers and export it for profit. The only cost they face is getting the consent.


Given how precious this resource is, why don’t we charge for it? The simple answer is that charging for water would trigger a Treaty claim, and the Government wants to avoid this at all costs. It is a myopic perspective and one inflicting unnecessary harm on New Zealanders.

Ownership of Fresh Water

The Government has studiously stuck to the line that nobody owns fresh water. This is a technical legal argument; of course some people have a use right (a form of property right) over fresh water. Any resource consent allows the holder to use water in the manner described in the consent. Legally this isn’t a full property right because there is an expiry date built into the resource consent. However, in practice most resource consents are expected to roll over unless there is a good reason not to. As a result the value of the consent is usually built into the price of the land that the consent is tied to.

The Government is keen to stick to the status quo where nobody owns fresh water. Any sort of charge or resource rental on water bottlers (or other commercial water users) would imply that there were in fact property rights over fresh water, which would raise the question of who owned it.

The Treaty of Waitangi

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.

Nothing to Fear

The Opportunities Party’s policy is to place a charge on commercial use of fresh water. This would raise the issue of a Treaty settlement, but we shouldn’t be afraid of that. The revenue raised through a charge could be used to restore our rivers and lakes, improve our monitoring and research, as well as 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.

Placing a charge on fresh water 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 more 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. 

Check out our environment and fresh water policy here

Showing 12 reactions

  • Margaret OBrien
    commented 2017-03-17 19:41:42 +1300
    I agree water should not be given away and exported. I am further concerned about GST. As an exported product the companies exporting water could be claiming huge GST refunds on the value of their exported products.
    If this is happening we are truly being played for idiots.
  • ed prince
    commented 2017-03-17 15:46:08 +1300
    its ridiculous we are giving away to foreign companies our asset as vital as water. we should make sure that for reasonable personal use to NZ residents, there is NO charge for water use. But for anyone making a commercial activity and profit from selling, or even worse, exporting our water then they should pay the cost of water. if water is exported it is removed from our hydrological cycle never to be replaced. we must be careful as water is becoming the new “oil” of the 21st century as supplies dry up and demand increases. We really need to protect what we have for future generations of all New Zealanders regardless of origin.
  • Peter Weeda
    commented 2017-03-16 08:40:27 +1300
    If any government refuses to take ownership of this resource, because of the ramifications this action would bring politically, surely they would then have no right to grant these applications in the first place.

    You can’t have your cake and eat it, even if the cake is getting stale.
  • Geoff McTague
    commented 2017-03-15 21:49:55 +1300
    The most important thing we need to do in New Zealand is not more legislation, that is easy and often just funds failure. Rather New Zealand leadership needs to focus on ridding this fine young land of the corruption that has brought us to this discussion. A constitution that would set New Zealand citizens up for success would be a good start.

    Tinkering around the water holes will do little but continue to fund the corruption that plagues our culture.

    The New Zealand citizens need rights and freedom not more nanny state dictatorship!
  • Steve Cox
    commented 2017-03-15 15:29:01 +1300
    Who owns “stuff”?
    That’s a hard question because “stuff” is so divisible. Maori owning everything because TOW is a far too simplistic attitude.
    If they own all fisheries, say, by what standard do we measure these fisheries. Today, 1840, what Maori actually fished, territorial limit (12 miles), Exclusive Economic Zone and so on.
    If Maori own all freshwater does that make them liable when a flood of their water damages my property?

    Personally I prefer a middle course of customary usage. If a wetland is used for gathering food then the appropriate Iwi has first (free) right to enough river water to maintain that wetland; the remainder of the water “belongs” elsewhere. But on the other side we shouldn’t apply Terra Nullius and discount Maori ownership because there is no evidence of occupation e.g. no middens found on the summit of Mount Taranaki therefore it can’t be Maori land.

    Once we resolve who owns, or doesn’t own, the natural resource called freshwater how do we use it? Firstly I would agree with virtually everyone that it isn’t free or free except for your consent fee. Maybe we should make water extraction consents expire much quicker than now, with no easy or automatic right of renewal. Make them non-transferable perhaps. Put an export tax on it? And definitely no corporate ownership of any of NZ’s residential water supply.

    Secondly this residential water supply. Every property should get a realistic amount of drinking quality water for free. Above that you pay. Well, you’re actually paying through your rates so its not for free. For something like Auckland’s Watercare then it should receive payment from the council for the free component and separately bill users for their overuse – that way they cannot cut off the supply.
  • Helen Paul Hickford
    commented 2017-03-15 12:31:56 +1300
    Were already paying for water in Auckland to Watercare … it’s not an insurmountable problem to say that all water belongs to tangata whenua and by this I mean rate payers and people who live in the areas where the water comes from. All residents. It doesn’t mean “someone” like Orivida can sell it off to China and thereby actually making money out of something that you say the Govt. says no one owns. That’s just daft.
  • Theo Stephens
    commented 2017-03-14 20:28:11 +1300
    Why not offer Maori a large share share of net revenue (i.e. after administrative costs and expenditure on cleanup)? Given their consistent generosity in the TOW settlement process, I would not be surprised if Maori would chose to spend this revenue on restoration and infrastructure to protect freshwater which would benefit all of us.
  • Steve Cox
    followed this page 2017-03-14 19:35:54 +1300
  • Oliver Krollmann
    followed this page 2017-03-14 14:42:30 +1300
  • Marianne Doczi
    commented 2017-03-14 12:38:04 +1300
    Yes, the government needs a policy of charging for water. Yes, Maori need their mana as kaitiaki given a legal foundation. AND until we value water as priceless, along with fully breathable air, we won’t be able to establish a system of pricing/supply that enables excess demand to be managed for our common-wealth. It will always be sold/exploited/used at below its true value to humans and the earth’s natural systems: priceless.
  • justin harvey
    commented 2017-03-14 12:00:47 +1300
    so you are saying that if you do that and maori claim and get 100% ownership witch you say they are entitled to or even 20% witch you say there is president , i will have to pay private iwis or goverment to drink water out of my tap, why not increase the cost of irrigation rights and recourse consents, highly restrict the amount of fresh water consents given and increase regulations on farmers to make the water ways more healthy witch should be the law anyway it should be tax dollars that clean this up its should be protected under the law, i cant afford to pay for my water, farmers cant afford to pay per liter for the water to irrigate, and saying that one bloodline owns the water that falls from the skies over everyone else that lives in the country sounds like the way the german nazis talked to the jews in there country, water belongs to no one and it should be up to democratically elected goverment to oversea its use not for privately held companys/trusts/iwi’s to charge new zealand people for it, bottled water is a small part of the market most water is used to water nz land, power nz homes, for new zealands to drink all your proposing is another tax on nzers to gain a small profit from overseas water bottling companies that you can easily tax in other ways,
  • Kate Tyson
    followed this page 2017-03-14 11:53:57 +1300