The Eye of the Fish

March 23, 2017

Honouring the social contract: Wellington setting example for fresh water management

Did Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau have in mind the water infrastructure of Wellington (a city which didn’t exist yet) when they drafted their theories on social contract? We cannot say.

Nevertheless, water management is certainly bringing social contract into play in New Zealand, at both a national and urban level: public outcry over international exploitation of national water supplies has highlighted the responsibility the New Zealand government owes its constituents. At the same time, systemic dysfunction with Wellington’s water infrastructure has highlighted the inverse – what is required of citizens by local government.

How can Wellingtonians’ response to social contract inspire the government to deal with New Zealand’s current water problem?

The relevance of social contract to water management was first brought to our recent attention by the near-free exploitation of New Zealand water by international companies. There has been a conflict between public outcry and government reluctance to act.
What is the underlying reason for this conflict? It is citizens’ sense of virtue versus the government’s sense of political realism.

Intuitively (and with good reason) citizens feel incensed at the thought of New Zealand’s resources being exploited for economic use without sufficient control/recompense. This is a simple but valid stance.

From the government’s perspective, the conflict arises with the unknown knock-on effects of following that virtuous principle through. According to prime minister Bill English, water issues are “always five times more complicated than you thought” (Stuff). By this, he means changing policy on water management risks adversely affecting local stakeholders/guardians such as tangata whenua, our national agriculture industry, and local consumers.

But social contract demands that leadership responds to the concerns of its constituents. The government needs to strike a balance between being pragmatically cautious of unintended political consequences, but also answering the idealistic concerns of its populace.

A good compromise would be for the government to act upon the virtue of not letting companies freely exploit New Zealand water, whilst using good public policy mechanisms to ensure knock-on effects are mitigated. This may be likely, with the government now requesting a review by the Ministry for the Environment, and constructive political debate taking place in public.

How can Wellingtonians’ response to social contract inspire government to follow through with their acknowledgment of a need for action on our national water problem?
In the last week, Wellingtonians have demonstrated their ability to uphold the citizens’ side of the social contract with regards to water management. The Dominion Post reported on 13th March that Wellington is losing one million litres of fresh water a day to damaged infrastructure leakage. At around 0.7% of all water supplied to Wellington daily, this is not critical. But virtues based on abhorrence of wastage and long term thinking (which characterise the national problem) means that the leaks are going to be addressed. A series of bulk water flow meters are to be installed in the coming months that will pinpoint leaks and improve the future development of Wellington’s water infrastructure. This is being supported and funded by Wellington ratepayers.

Social contract requires that citizens make concessions to government for the good of the citizenry as a whole. By paying rates to reduce waste and future-proof water supplies, Wellingtonians are setting an example for upholding their side of the social contract, specifically when it comes to the fundamental values we have around good water management.

Mismanagement of our water is fundamentally unseemly to New Zealanders. If we as citizens are willing to fund the avoidance of this in Wellington, we should be entitled to expect the same dedication from our national government when it comes to taking decisive action on international exploitation of our fresh water.

24 - 03 - 17

It is an interesting and very tricky subject, I agree. But, as always, I would say: go for the principle of precedent. What have other countries done? So, some questions:

Do other countries charge extractors for water? If so, how much?
Do other countries say who owns water? If so, who?
If it falls from the sky as water, then at what point does water become yours, rather than God’s?
How can Auckland charge consumers for water, and make a profit from the selling of water, yet CocoaCola Amatil Bottlers in Putaruru get charged not a cent for the millions of litres they take, and then sell back to us gullible fools?
But if we are to charge Coke 10c a litre (they sell it to us for $2- $3 a litre), then should we just charge Canterbury and Waikato dairy farmers as well? That would bankrupt them instantly.
If i have to pay $3 a litre to Coke for my Pump water, shouldn’t they have to pay at least a $1 a litre?
Fiji Water is the biggest selling brand of water in the USA, apparently. Does it actually come from Fiji?
Is it bottled there? Do Fijians get any money from the sale of the water? If so, who does it go to?
the list goes on….

27 - 03 - 17

Yes it is very complicated. I hope the main result of this water bottling water story is that we have a wider discussion about water use as a country.

As you mentioned, agriculture – not bottled water – is our main consumer of fresh water, but it is also one of our most important industries.

Fresh water is a scarce resource and so needs some sort of value ascribed to curb over-use.

But striking a fine balance between a value that incentivises industry to become more efficient with water use, without debilitating industry in the process, will be difficult.

Hopefully the water bottling controversy draws our attention to these wider issues, so we can decide as a country how to balance our economic development with our social and environmental development, too.

In terms of international precedent, the OECD’s reports on water management are a good place to look. But they also stress the complexity of the problem, and that each country has its own unique challenges when it comes to fresh water policy making.