(As published by the Otago Daily Times on August 25, 2017)
It is important to regard last week’s water advisory in Dunedin as more than just a temporary problem resulting from an isolated case of contamination. Advising citizens their public source of freshwater is unfit for consumption and sanitation relates to a broader trend that is not exclusive to New Zealand, which has changed the way in which individuals and groups interact with water.
The implications of a water advisory transcends its immediate health concerns: To regard public water as being potentially detrimental could lead to an erosion of the public’s trust over its safety. Should this distrust prevail, it could lead to the proliferation of alternative water procurement solutions, which normally take the form of market-based, for-profit water provision.
This is indeed the case in several countries of Central and South America (and arguably elsewhere), where poor municipal water distribution has created a demand for privatised water services, and helped to increase demands for bottled water products. Discontent, and even violent conflict, has emerged as a result of the commercialisation and/or privatisation of water. In these cases, normalising a belief that public water services are substandard has produced a scenario in which unnecessary industries and practices have been allowed to thrive, leaving significant economic and social inequalities, as well as environmental degradation, along the way.
Having inadequacies in relation to water access and quality in an OECD country like New Zealand, however, is inexcusable. New Zealand is not only one of the most water-rich countries in the world; it is also a country with very low population densities, which in theory, should allow for unhindered access to safe fresh water in both rural and urban settings. Yet patterns of natural resource exploitation and export-driven economic planning continue to lead New Zealand through a path where fears of water insufficiency are commonplace.
According to New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment, the region of Canterbury accounts for roughly 73% of the country’s groundwater, but even under such conditions of abundance, scepticism over the distribution and durability of said resources continues to be a matter of concern for citizens.
That conflict over water can emanate in a place like New Zealand is something that normally eludes researchers interested in the environmental causes of conflict. Yet, popular uproar in 2016 over the the City of Ashburton’s decision to approve a resource consent for water bottling beckons revising how conflict over water can emerge in countries like New Zealand.
New Zealand’s authorities must approach the water question with surgical care. We live in a global economic and political environment that encourages the commodification of nature, and the transfer of public responsibilities to the private sector. Under such a setting, and under the aegis of water securitisation, weak water stewardship in one part of the world is strong enough a rationale to justify the intensification of water extraction elsewhere. This is indeed one of the arguments that legitimises the withdrawal and sale of bulk water in New Zealand, as it continues to be marketed in India and China.
Should water quality continue to be a matter of concern within New Zealand, greater subnational demand for private water will only help to exacerbate patterns of water extraction that risk the availability and renewability of water.