PoliticsMarch 5, 2020

Bottled water has reached its tipping point. The time for a moratorium is now


As New Zealand suffers from drought and the effects of climate change become more severe, now is not the time for New Zealand to be shipping water offshore, writes Cat MacLennan.

At the bottom of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s ocean, explorers in 2019 found four new species of crustaceans called amphipods, a pink snail fish and a spoon worm.

They also observed a plastic bag, lolly wrappers and micro-plastics.

More than eight million tonnes of plastic pour into the sea each year, killing millions of turtles, whales, seals, birds and fish that either think the junk is food, or else become entangled in it. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch already stretches for 1.6 million kilometres – three times the size of France – and is expanding rapidly.

Aotearoa contributes to that pollution in many ways, but possibly the most senseless is in our support for water bottling.

In 2017, 73 companies had consents to take 23 billion litres of New Zealand water a year for bottling. By 2019, there were 88 permits, with the number in Canterbury sky-rocketing from eight to 18. The commercial firms are essentially given the water for free – they pay average fees of only $200 a year and those are for consent costs, rather than for the water.

From the West Coast to Christchurch, from the Hutt Valley to Whakatāne, regional councils are granting consents lasting for decades to enable companies to draw billions of litres of water. At the same time, huge swathes of the country are blanketed by drought and rapidly advancing climate change makes water the most precious commodity on the planet.

The Ashburton District Council drew a storm of criticism for its eventually abandoned plans to sell the right to take 40 billion litres of water in the years to 2046. The proposed bottling location was on the Canterbury plains, a drought-prone area where the groundwater zone is already over-allocated and people reliant on bores contend with high levels of nitrate in drinking water.

In Whakatāne, Ngāti Awa and Sustainable Otakiri have been fighting back against a foreign company’s plans to expand existing water bottling at Otakiri Springs by up to 1.1 billion litres a year. In 2018, Nongfu Spring subsidiary Creswell NZ Ltd was granted consent to increase the water taken by 27,400%, with the goal of drawing 208,000 litres every hour of every day by 2021.

The Environment Court in December 2019 declined to overturn the consents and the iwi and environmental group are now appealing to the High Court.

But the problem with water bottling isn’t just that we’re giving away our water for free to commercial firms in markets overseas when New Zealand is suffering from drought and bushfires are becoming more common. There are two other big concerns about water bottling.

Evidence of the drought at a farm in Tapawera, near Upper Moutere, in 2019 (Photo: RNZ)

The first is that it ignores Māori rights to water. The Waitangi Tribunal in 2012 granted an application for an urgent hearing into two claims involving Māori proprietary rights to geothermal resources and freshwater bodies. Wai 2357 concerned the Crown’s plans to privatise four state-owned power companies without first protecting or providing for Māori rights in the water resources used by the companies. Wai 2358 related to the Crown’s resource management reforms, which claimants said were occurring without a plan to recognise and provide for Māori rights and interests in water.

The tribunal decided to hear the two claims together, splitting its inquiry into two stages and releasing a report on the impact of the Crown’s proposed sale of shares in state-owned power companies in December 2012.

The tribunal concluded that the nexus between the power company shares to be transferred and the Māori claim to rights in the water used by the power companies was sufficient to require a halt, if the sale would put the issue of rights recognition and remedy beyond the Crown’s ability to deliver. The inquiry was then adjourned so that the Crown and the Freshwater Iwi Leaders’ Group could work together to draw up reforms to address Māori rights and interests in freshwater.

In August 2019, the Tribunal released its Stage 2 report, holding that the present law relating to freshwater was not consistent with Treaty of Waitangi principles, with the water allocation regime under the Resource Management Act breaching the Treaty of Waitangi principle of equity.

The tribunal said that it might now be necessary for a test court case to be brought to determine whether native title in freshwater existed as a matter of common law and had not been extinguished.

The tribunal noted that previous tribunal panels had already found the legislation to be in breach of the Treaty, but most of the recommendations in earlier tribunal reports had been ignored. The report said that the Crown should recognise Māori water rights through proprietary redress, including making inalienable and perpetually renewable water allocations for the exclusive use of iwi and hapū.

The tribunal suggested that the way in which commercial aquaculture and fisheries rights had been allocated to Māori could serve as a model for freshwater. It also strongly criticised the Crown’s failure to lead or support Māori participation in Resource Management Act processes for freshwater management, recommending that an independent, national water commission be created on a co-governance basis with Māori. The commission would be able to consider how to give Māori proprietary redress, including by the introduction of water royalties, and examine whether a new Water Act should be passed.

The report recommended strengthening the purposes and principles in the Resource Management Act by inserting a provision, Te Mana o te Wai, into section 6, and making co-governance of freshwater bodies mandatory by amending Mana Whakahono ā Rohe provisions.

The other key problem with water bottling is the pollution it involves. The Otakiri Springs water-bottling expansion will produce 3.7 million plastic bottles every day for the next 25 years – 1.33 billion bottles a year.

The single-use containers will form part of the half a trillion plastic bottles that are sold globally every 12 months, before ending up in landfills or the sea. By 2050, it is calculated that the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish.

The Whakatāne operation will also require truck movements to soar from eight to 202 a day, and the expansion of a 1,340 square metre building to 16,800 square metres. There will be a 16-metre-high chimney stack, refuelling stations on-site and 30,000-litre LPG and diesel tanks.

Cloud Ocean Water was last year fined after Environment Canterbury inspectors found contaminated water and plastic beads at its Belfast site. If plastic beads enter a stormwater network, they can smother the waterway bed. In 2018, the firm was ordered to stop taking water from bores after it did so without permission.

Photo: Steven Depolo

In 2020, we’ll see many of these issues associated with water bottling coming to a head. The government will shortly introduce to parliament a bill to amend the Overseas Investment Act, after stating last November that examination of the impact on water quality and sustainability of a water bottling enterprise would in future be considered when assessing investments in sensitive land.

An announcement on whether royalties will be charged on water bottling is also due. Minister for the Environment David Parker said in 2019 that Labour had made a commitment in its coalition agreement with New Zealand First and confidence and supply agreement with the Greens that it would address the issue of royalties on bottled water in the current parliamentary term. He said that the government expected to pass an amendment to the Resource Management Act before the next election.

Jacinda Ardern said that foreign and domestic water bottlers had to be treated the same to comply with trade obligations, and the government was exploring how this could be done. Parker stated last November that consideration was being given to imposing a levy on containers, rather than on water.

This year will also see High Court challenges to water-bottling consents, the progress of a High Court claim to determine whether native title in freshwater exists at common law, and decisions on the government’s action for healthy waterways document.

Royalties on water bottling would be publicly popular. A 2017 Newshub poll found that 87% of those surveyed supported charging a royalty to water-bottling companies.

However, levying water-bottling companies would fail to solve any of the three main problems inherent in water bottling. Temperatures are being broken around New Zealand and those extremes will become more prevalent in the coming years. This will make water both more precious and scarcer.

The Ministry for the Environment anticipates that the amount of time Taranaki spends in drought could double in the future. In Northland, some towns are currently close to running out of water and the army has been brought in to Kaitaia to deliver water to marae and other community locations. In the Hutt Valley, river flows are already very low and there’s toxic algae. It’s unknown what the impact on the river will be if increased water takes mean less liquid rises from the aquifer to supply the river.

The United Nations predicts that by 2030, the world will only have 60% of the water it needs. Accordingly, now is not the time for New Zealand to be shipping water offshore.

Royalties also fail to address the issue of Māori water rights. The suggestion of imposing a levy on containers, rather than on water, appears to be a device to circumvent dealing with Māori.

Royalties would also do nothing to halt the pollution accompanying water bottling. We should be encouraging people to drink tap water, which is 500 times cheaper than bottled water and just as healthy, rather than facilitating the manufacture of billions more plastic bottles each year.

Imposing levies would create a bizarre incentive for councils to grant more water-take consents as a means of earning income.

What is needed is an immediate moratorium on the granting of consents for water bottling. The government should address the issue of Māori water rights and consideration should be given to the creation of a national water commission.

Our future priority should then be to restore and conserve water, not to market it overseas.

Keep going!