Home / Blogs / More from less / Troubled waters

Troubled waters

8st August 2017

The New Zealand Labour Party under its new leadership is certainly making waves. Apart from being accused of undermining the Australian government, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has announced a plan to charge irrigators royalties – which would fund regional council efforts to clean up rivers – essentially creating a water tax for NZ farmers.

Currently no one pays for water in New Zealand. Watercare charges for treatment and reticulation of water to homes and businesses, but not for the water itself. Irrigators pay for infrastructure through consenting, drilling of wells and, installation and running of pumping stations. Irrigation NZ estimates these costs are around NZ$780/ha. Labour hasn’t revealed much detail about the plan, undertaking to hold a roundtable with affected industries within it first 100 days should it win government – although estimates of 1 to 2 cents per 1,000 litres have been circulating in the media.

The farm sector was immediately outraged at the “attack” on them, warning of escalating food costs, lost export competitiveness and dire warnings that irrigators will be in as much of a mess as their Australian counterparts. Opinion pieces called the policy “a pre-election crowd pleaser” capitalising on the “outrage” some people feel about polluted rivers, and warned that it would drive a deeper wedge between rural and urban communities.

The issues are undoubtedly complex, but Labour’s strategy – which seems to target farmers as using water is telling. While the rural sector united in its condemnation of the plan to charge for water – an online survey of 5,000 Kiwis found 77% believe agriculture and horticulture users should be charged for water. The survey conducted by Water New Zealand found overwhelming support for charging water bottlers – at 89%, while 59% think all users should pay.

Presentations from Labour MPs in support of the water policy have reportedly included images of environmental degradation associated with agriculture implying the sector was the source of the issues with pollution of rivers – with limited acknowledgement of urban issues. It is understandable that the farm sector feels targeted by this particular policy – but its initial defensiveness on the grounds of bottom-line impact on businesses and over-inflated estimates of food price impacts have elicited little support. It seems the characterization of the sector using a community resource for profit and damaging the environment along the way has significant traction.

The New Zealand agriculture and horticulture sector are amongst the world’s best, producing high quality food, and making major contributions to regional and national economies – but as the current, polarising debate highlights –  this is simply not enough.

In recent days, a group of farming leaders has come out strongly, committing to “swimmable rivers”, and pledging to share the responsibility for improving water quality for future generations. It provided an opportunity for the dairy industry to show how much has been achieved under the Sustainable Dairy Water Accord, and the personal investments producers had made to protect waterways. It seems a much better idea to present the sector as part of the answer, rather than the problem that doesn’t want to be taxed – but is it too late to sway public opinion?

This water debate may bring on a battle for the New Zealand public’s hearts and minds about how well farming cares for “pristine” resources, and whether sectors such as dairy have done a good enough job bringing their communities with them.