Should Canterbury irrigate more land?
OPINION: Cantabrians need to stand up and support irrigation as the backbone of the economy, argues ANDREW CURTIS, chief executive of Irrigation New Zealand.
It is regrettable that Sir Kerry Burke portrays irrigators, the irrigation sector and Canterbury's rural hinterland in such a derogatory fashion (How ECan fell to the irrigators).
Irrigators have become increasingly frustrated with the damaging and politically driven untruths being spouted by a minority about their efforts and contribution. Why do we give these views air time? Pitching urban communities against their rural cousins will never result in a prosperous and sustainable Canterbury. These views serve only to polarise and divide so why do we keep going there?
Irrigation is the cornerstone of the Canterbury and Christchurch economies and always will be - particularly given the increased global need for food production and growing concerns around food security. New Zealand may be an island at the bottom of the Pacific, but our world-leading agricultural systems that produce safe and premium food, beverages and fibre are internationally sought after. Water, when combined with the fertile alluvial plains of Canterbury, is New Zealand's success story - presenting an international strategic advantage second to none. Efficient water management will result in both the sustainable growth of exports in premium produce, alongside the production systems themselves - the selling of the knowledge and technology.
Recent independent analysis, commissioned by the Canterbury Development Corporation (CDC), confirms that Christchurch's economy continues to run on the rural hinterland - its irrigated farmland. This is why post- earthquake, the Christchurch economy has not collapsed. Christchurch is essentially a large rural service town and we should not kid ourselves otherwise.
It's time Cantabrians voiced their support for the backbone of their economy, by standing up and countering the naysayers. The public and media focus should be on the constructive (but unfortunately less controversial) water management regime being rolled out in Canterbury - and this is far from an "irrigation at any cost" agenda!
There is a "new way" of doing things - that has actually been with us for some time now. The Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) is a collaborative approach to water management dating back to some enlightened thinkers of the mid-2000s. The ECan Act, alongside the so-called loss of democracy, gave effect to the CWMS. The vision and principles of the CWMS now sit alongside the Resource Management Act for water policy decision-making for Canterbury.
The commissioners have been a key component of the CWMS's successful track record and it is doubtful we could have come this far under the old system. Replacing politically motivated, tradeoff focused councillors, many of whom had no clear mandate; with independent and rational thinkers who make informed decisions based upon outcomes from community-led processes is a huge improvement. Canterbury's water management is now where it should have been to start with - focused on community stakeholders and iwi coming together to work through the issues and opportunities.
Enabling collaborative processes such as the CWMS could be regarded the ultimate democracy - anyone can have a say if they want to. Is the rhetoric from former politicians really about loss of democracy or is it instead about them having lost their soapbox or having egos dented?
Irrigators face a steep change in environmental requirements. Firstly, communities are coming together to set their own local water quantity and water quality goals. Farmers and irrigators have to respond with considerable investment on-farm over the next couple of decades. To manage these goals, an auditable farm environment plan system will be implemented region-wide within five years. The plans will set bottom lines for environmental practice on-farm that link to specific community goals. Audits will then assess whether individual farmers are achieving the goals. Failure to achieve will result in compliance action to enforce change.
The irrigation industry has been at the forefront of developing and implementing these farm environmental management systems. Irrigators now need support to put these changes in place as opposed to being constantly chastised and berated for not moving fast enough.
Irrigation is positive for Christchurch, Canterbury and for New Zealand. So let's embrace it and work with irrigators to ensure we all gain the maximum community benefit from our water use. Urban and rural communities alike want to live in prosperous, healthy and sustainable environments.
- New Zealand has 620,000 hectares of irrigated land and Canterbury has more than 65 per cent of this. Available water resources, topography and demand show this figure can be sustainably increased to in excess of 1 million hectares.
- Variable climatic conditions which will be accentuated through climate change, coupled with market supply and food processing requirements, mean irrigation is essential for consistent and quality food production in eastern New Zealand. This includes Canterbury, Otago, Marlborough, Hawke's Bay, Gisborne and the Wairarapa. Irrigated farmland generates three times the production of an equivalent area farmed under dryland systems.
- Irrigation benefits everyone, not just irrigators. For every $1 benefit to the irrigator there is at least another $3 benefit to community.
- New Zealand derives immense economic, environmental and social benefits from irrigated agriculture. In 2002/03, 4 per cent of New Zealand's farmland was irrigated, producing 12 per cent of agriculture farmgate GDP (about 1 per cent of national GDP). In 2010/11 irrigation was up to 6 per cent of New Zealand's farmland and 18 per cent of agriculture farmgate GDP (about 2 per cent of national GDP).
- New Zealand has abundant water resources to meet present and projected irrigation demand. However, to do this sustainably will require the development of large-scale water storage facilities.
- Reliable and secure water supply combined with well managed irrigation practices will result in good environmental outcomes and overcome perceived land intensification issues.
- Unlike most urban water supplies in New Zealand, irrigators pay a volumetric charge for their water. This has driven efficient practice over time.
- In other countries irrigation is commonly government-funded due to its proven benefits for community economic and social development.
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