Getting real about the cost of water
I spent 10 years in China working on a beef cattle farm, and a fair amount of that time was spent learning what it meant to be at the mercy of water. There was too much water, not enough water, or it was freezing and bursting pipes. Part of farming involves placing oneself at the mercy of a whole host of factors outside your control, like water, and then fighting tooth and nail to come out on top.
Surviving, and staying in business, requires a combination of accumulated knowledge, lots of preparation, access to technology, innovation, waste minimisation, and luck. It’s no surprise then that the possibility of the introduction of a tax on the use of water hits a nerve for many farmers in New Zealand. Surviving in the modern farming industry already requires astute business practice, with highly efficient irrigation, water and waste systems—systems they often create and pay for themselves. It’s therefore unsurprising that many farmers met under the bulbous udder of the Morrinsville Mega Cow to protest the proposition of more costs.
For those of us who live in towns and cities, most of these concerns about water are conveniently outsourced.
Armies of planners, analysts, and engineers minimise weather and water risks for us. We have planners for our tap, sewer and storm water needs. We have massive water storage facilities so our homes and businesses never run dry. Every now and then we may have to revert to the classic ‘if its yellow let it mellow’ for a time, but we sit largely insulated from the effects of drought and flood. The expense of all this convenience is often hidden within general council rates, or in some towns and cities, charged as a separate water levy. But even these nominal costs obscure the true cost of the inefficiencies and pollution that cities create in our water market.
It’s interesting to consider a Water New Zealand study from 2011/12. They found only 25 percent of local water providers were meeting international standards for water loss/wastage. Some couldn’t even measure water loss accurately enough to provide figures. Similarly, a Weekend Herald investigation earlier this year revealed “1 million cubic metres of waste water and raw sewage—the equivalent of 400 Olympic swimming pools—is pouring into the harbour each year.”
New Zealand needs more transparent and accurate pricing for all water users, but not so we can punish irrigators. Rather it’s to ensure that the overlooked or inefficient parts of our water and waste systems can be identified and improvements incentivised. Pricing makes us aware of the big and little areas of waste, and exposes the decisions made about water on our behalf. For example, it’s wouldn’t be efficient to search out and eliminate all water leakage, but it’s also not good enough to ignore water wastage altogether.
Together, it is time we faced the reality that even though access to water is a human right, we can’t expect it to come free to every tap, or allow anyone an unlimited supply of water for whatever use. Creating a better, more transparent, water market will be easier said than done in an environment that is charged with emotion, udders, and questions of ownership. But we must work it out for the sake of the New Zealanders who come after us.