The politics of water

The politics of water

The current constrained investment in the water sector in this country has led to stresses impacting environmental performance and public health. However, addressing the growing deterioration in our freshwater quality and providing safe drinking water involves getting both the politics and the water sector on the same page.

There’s no doubt that poor compliance with both environmental conditions and the Drinking Water Standards has created a worrying deterioration in freshwater quality and the ability to provide safe drinking water in New Zealand.

In 2007, research for the Ministry of Health estimated that the overall burden of drinking water-borne gastrointestinal disease was 18,000 to 34,000 cases a year. A more recent survey put the estimate at over 100,000 cases per year.

The Havelock North water contamination event made approximately 5000 people sick, with the Stage 2 report stating that 759,000 people are exposed to unsafe drinking water.

Unfortunately, fixing our water problem is not straightforward. I think two key factors directly impact on the success of any future reform:

Water entities
In most parts of the country water services are a fundamental service embedded into local government. This means any significant reform will not be ring-fenced but will encompass comprehensive and disruptive reform of local government, including the transfer of asset ownership and the possibility
of stranded assets.

Our MMP government fosters consensus and coalitions, thus limiting majority governments and testing political capital. Yet we need our politicians to work together urgently to achieve reform before another Havelock North incident occurs.

Successful reform overseas
In the United Kingdom, water reform was underpinned by a clear and consistent long-term vision with guidance from the environmental and public health regulators. Transparency and benchmarking of performance ensured the economic regulator protected the consumer.

And the new structures enabled a robust source of funding with investment free from political influence.

In the 1980s, when the Thatcher Government implemented major reform, including the privatisation of the water sector in England and Wales, the government enjoyed a parliamentary majority of 144 seats in a parliament of 650 seats.

Likewise, in the early 2000s, when Tony Blair’s Labour Government reformed the water sector in Scotland, creating the publicly-owned Scottish Water, the prime minister enjoyed a parliamentary majority of 179 seats. And he had no political opposition north of the border as the Conservative Party had lost all its seats in Scotland in the 1997 general election.

Importantly, the impact of the above reforms was relatively ring-fenced as the historical structures already comprised dedicated water entities (water boards) typically based on water catchments.

Successful reform here
Providing safe drinking water for all New Zealanders and improving inland water quality involves considering not only the outcome – the future state – but the transformational journey to get us there.

While there are strong and compelling drivers for change, I am worried that the challenges of historical structures and the likely disruption that this will cause may test political will and capital.

It seems that the biggest obstacle we face is whether our representatives in parliament have the non-partisan political will to get us there before there is a repeat of Havelock North or a major environmental contamination event.

It’s clear that any reform in this critical sector must transcend party politics and I urge politicians to embrace the consensus and collaborative culture of MMP for the benefit of all the country.

I believe it’s time for a non-partisan, unified approach from parliament, such as a cross-party Select Committee or a Royal Commission.

In 2017 this approach was adopted for climate change, so why not now for water?

This article was first published in New Zealand Local Government Magazine.

This thought leadership piece by Steve Finnemore - General Manager Infrastructure, is intended to provide you with insights and relevant information on drinking water in New Zealand.

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