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.

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