Putting value on water is complex

ANDREW BUTLER
Last updated 11:39 15/11/2013
Rakaia River
Richard Cosgrove/Fairfax NZ
RESOURCE: The Rakaia River flows to the sea.

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OPINION: Water is back in the news. But how should we value water, asks ANDREW BUTLER.

Our water supply, again, has become a subject of debate of late. "Water, water everywhere - so let's use it" Says Bruce Wills, the national president of Federated Farmers (stuff.co.nz, Oct 29).

Hold on, say others such as Bruce Scott (The Press, Oct 29), there is a pricing issue, particularly in the dairy production sector, and part of the solution is to find a mechanism - specifically an economic one, by which to enable the governing of water.

Such arguments are complicated further by the concerns raised by the medical officer of health, Dr Alistair Humphrey, and the ensuing comments regarding the question of our decreasing regional water supply quality.

The question is: Will putting a value on water provide a solution to concerns over water quality, water quantity and water use which will span over the short, medium and long term?

The answer, in the real world, is far more complex and so would any pricing mechanism be.

If we prescribe to the water pricing theory what is needed is a market adjustment from which will entail a correction in behaviour - in particular those who have entered the agricultural production market on the premise that one input is perceived to be undervalued.

But water for agriculture already does cost - in terms of the infrastructures, distribution, and consent compliance costs which are not insignificant.

To apply symmetry here, this is not at all dissimilar from the "cost" of water for those of us who live in Christchurch. What residents pay for is the operation, maintenance and upgrading of large and costly sanitation networks operated under a centralised system governed by the city council.

While we must accept that in Canterbury irrigation consumes by far the largest volume of consented water takes in the region (approx 89 per cent), it is also estimated that only about 56 per cent of this is actually used, and when the kinks are worked out of the water metering regulations ECan will have a far more accurate picture of water use.

It is worth noting that the efficiency and types of water use vary greatly across the region ranging from highly- productive and water-efficient precision farms, to those on the other side of the spectrum that blatantly disregard environmental standards and regulations, with many variations for many reasons lying between.

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This is no different, except in scale, from how water is consumed in urban environments. In fact those of us who live in Christchurch are guilty of one of the highest water consumption rates in the country, a garden city which boasts horribly polluted rivers that meander through our suburbs.

As regions and as citizens we need to better come to grips with the deeper complexities of the water concerns that affect us and the generations beyond.

It is not up to Federated Farmers to become spokespeople for water resources, nor does the domain of solutions belong exclusively to politicians or economists - so far this has not produced overly satisfying results, nor does it exhibit the ingenuity or imagination that we as a nation claim as part of or cultural resources and heritage.

Valuing water economically may provide a solution, but then again it may create further problems.

To my mind the question should begin elsewhere. It is, of course, a question of value but what we mean by this and how we go about it in this complex environment needs better, more informed engagement and consideration.

Andrew Butler is a PhD candidate at the University of Canterbury, with the sociology department. He is currently undertaking research on water in Canterbury.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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