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News and views from New Zealand NZ:- 100% pure bilge water –  Dennis Dorney

In my most recent article I suggested that our Australian-owned banks were getting jittery and were reducing their exposure as much as possible. Their recent behaviour may support that idea or could simply be an example of their typical meanness.

On Sept 16th, Westpac Bank confirmed that it will close 19 rural branches around the country, with 72 jobs at risk. Despite massive resistance from some communities to the move, the bank had decided to go ahead with the closures. Two days later ANZ Bank announced that 5 rural branches were likely close. In view of the record profits being earned by these banks, it would not hurt them to be generous but they are impervious to persuasion. Perhaps they know something that we don’t know.

Cool, (un)clear water

Perhaps banks need to be reminded that money is not the most important thing in the world. That humble, but most essential, commodity – water – has recently figured prominently in the news. It may seem far removed from economics but if you haven’t any water, you will pay a lot to get some. Most of our readers will be aware that multi- nationals are buying up water rights as quickly as possible. In NZ we have water in plenty – so much so that we abuse it terribly.

Maori water rights

Maori claims of rights to rivers, water- ways, the sea shore etc have been a running sore in NZ for a long time.

When the National government sold off a large chunk of our Energy companies, the Maori Party (although officially part of the ruling coalition) said that the sale could not proceed until its claim for rights to the water that generated our hydropower, had been resolved. The Government stated flatly that water belonged to no-one, which ended the dispute but had unintended consequences.

This meant that New Zealanders could access spring water in aquifers at no cost other than that of connection to the bore (generally about $300). Theoretic- ally there was then no limit to the water they could extract, a fact that overseas companies picked up on very quickly.

The Ashburton District Council (South Island) is selling a section in its busin- ess estate for an undisclosed sum. It is provided with a valuable resource consent that allows abstraction of water from aquifers beneath the town. The council has refused to publicise information about the deal, which is understood to be with an overseas company, but the price appears to be for the section, not for the amount of water extracted, which is likely to be bottled on site. The consent expires in 2046, meaning that the buyer will gain access to more than 40 billion litres of Ashburton’s pure water. It includes a recharge consent, meaning that any short-fall in water supplied must be replaced from other sources, which presumably means the Ashburton River nearby.

Muddying the water

But what happens if the water becomes contaminated? A similar deal exists in the Hawkes Bay District, where local spring water is bottled and sent to China. The first batch was rejected as having excessive nitrate concentrations, presumably from fertilisers or from cow droppings. Worse follows.

The Hawke’s Bay (North Island) District Health Board confirmed on April 13th a spate of gastric illnesses stemming apparently from contamination in the water supply, though the cause of the contamination was not known. One person had died at a Havelock North nursing home, possibly from the contamination. Eventually around 5000 people were affected by the illness, and two subsequently died.

The contamination was of a type that would be passed on from birds, deer or – most probably – cows. Prior to the outbreak the water had never been chlorinated because it was trapped between clay layers and was therefore considered ‘safe’. However the Hawkes Bay region had suffered a prolonged drought lasting well into winter, which was then broken by severe flooding. It is thought that the drought had cracked the clay layers allowing the flood waters access to the aquifer.

The environmental damage has a direct link to economic consequences. For a long time NZ has used the slogan “NZ: 100% Pure” to good effect to attract overseas visitors lured by a vision of a pristine environment. Unfortunately our present Government is obsessed with expanding NZ’s dairy industry, which requires enormous quantities of water from rivers and aquifers to function.

This increased demand reduces water flows to the point where bacteria can become established and also intensifies the leaching of nitrates into the rivers. It would be a very foolish person who drinks NZ river water these days.

Under pressure from the Parliamentary Opposition to raise river water standards to be at least swimmable, Dr Nick Smith, Minister for the Environment, has claimed that such a goal was an unattainable expectation.

NZ’s Commissioner for the Environment, Dame Jan Wright, a woman of high repute, has stated the obvious in saying that all things being equal, intensifying farming must inevitably increase pollution. What is our slogan worth then?

Any government’s policies ought to satisfy social, environmental and economic imperatives. The recent social trauma of the Hawkes Bay District stems from our cavalier approach to the environment and appears to have driven us up an economic cul-de-sac.

Dennis Dorney is a regular contributor and is an ERA member living in NZ


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