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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsJanuary 25, 2024

Who should I blame for Wellington’s water shortage? A user’s guide

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

As Wellington grapples with a water crisis, Joel MacManus presents a simple guide to help you point the finger.

Two simultaneous catastrophes have hit the Wellington region. The first was an unpredictable black swan event: it is summer. There has been lots of sun and not much rain. The second is the state of the pipes. They’re leaking like a sieve. No one knows exactly how much water is lost before it reaches your tap, but estimates are as high as 45%

I’ve reported on Wellington’s pipes more than anyone should endure in one lifetime. In January 2020, I was working on a huge scoop about a collapsed pipe and was annoyed when my editor scrapped the story and sent me to a press conference to hear some nerd named Ashley Bloomfield talking about an obscure new virus in China. I even have a favourite pipe: it’s called The Interceptor. It’s 130 years old, the biggest pipe in the city, and if it breaks, we are all screwed. 

Wellington’s terrible pipes are once again holding the city hostage. The region is currently at a Level 2 water restriction, which bans residential sprinklers and irrigation. It’s more than likely we will reach Level 3 soon, which will ban all outdoor residential water use. 

As Wellington grapples with this crisis, the most important question on everyone’s lips is: Who can I blame? Here’s a simple guide to help you point the finger. 

El Niño 

That annoying Little Boy keeps pushing warm air over us and evaporating all our water. What a jerk. 

Rich suburbanites

Stop watering your lawns all the time. 

Bike lanes

A favourite of the Facebook comment crowd. If only the council cut a few million from its cycling budget, it could solve the region’s $30 billion water infrastructure deficit. 


For cancelling the Three Waters reforms, which (maybe) would have stopped this kind of thing from happening in the future. 


For not fighting harder for the Three Waters reforms, which (maybe) would have stopped this kind of thing from happening in the future. 


They demanded low rates their entire lives and now we are stuck with the repair bill. 


If there were more homes in the city, there would be more ratepayers to pay for all this stuff.

The 2016 Kaikōura earthquake

The quake caused fissures in pipes across the city. Over time, they’ve developed into cracks and leaks.

Wellington Water

The Wellington region’s water service provider is running way behind on its job of fixing all the reported leaks across the region. 

The council 

Wellington Water asked Wellington City Council to give it an extra $10 million dollars in funding, but the council refused, because it didn’t think Wellington Water could deliver the services it promised. It’s true the water provider is struggling to meet its own targets, but less money doesn’t help. 

The council 30 years ago

Councils have been underfunding water for decades. According to its own internal investigation, Wellington City Council suffered from an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality towards water, and never gave it the level of investment it needed. 

The council 70 years ago

From about 1950 until the 70s, Wellington built most of its pipes with asbestos cement. It’s not dangerous to public health, but it turns out asbestos cement is a crappy material that only lasts half as long as ceramic pipes. So now they’re all breaking. 

Local government funding mechanisms

Rates just aren’t enough to cover all the costs of running a modern council, especially in big cities. Local Government New Zealand has spent years pushing for a change in funding rules. One obvious change: the government could stop charging GST on rates, giving councils an extra 15% in total revenue. Also, the government doesn’t pay rates on Crown land. As the capital city, Wellington has a lot of valuable Crown land. 


There is one obvious solution to Wellington’s water problems: Water meters. Auckland has them, and it’s fine. Kapiti introduced water meters in 2014, saw a 26% drop in water use, and two-thirds of residents ended up paying less for water. 

Wrapping the cost of water into rates is an unsustainable idea, because local politicians will always be incentivised to keep rates low and underfund the water network. Charging people based on the water they use makes sure the system gets property funded. It’s also more equitable, because it ensures the biggest water users (people who run sprinklers on their lawns) pay more, while people in apartments and smaller houses pay less. 

Why aren’t we doing it? Because local politicians are cowards. No mayor or councillor wants to be the one who introduces water charges, because it will look like an additional bill and people will complain, even if it means rates are lower in the long term. That’s a big part of why Wellington councillors liked the Three Waters reforms: once the pipes were taken off the council’s hands, the new water entity would be free to introduce water meters, and councillors could put up their hands and say “don’t blame me, it wasn’t my choice”. 

There’s nothing stopping the combined councils of Wellington from handing over their water assets to a new version of Wellington Water and giving it the power to set water rates. That is exactly what the Mayoral Taskforce on Water recommended in 2020. Now that the Three Waters reforms are dead, it’s time for the city to seriously consider this option. The only reason they haven’t done it is because they’re cowards.

Keep going!