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By Daniel Collins

Soon after ‘Ever Wondered?’ screened its episode on water back in September, TV1 viewers were treated to another installment on water resources, this time by Kiwi entertainer Te Radar on ‘Global Radar’. He set the scene thus:

‘It’s an incredible resource, water, and one that I think we take for granted.’

While the ‘Ever Wondered?’ episode focused on the science behind water resources, Global Radar shifted the focus towards its economic value. Rain, or precipitation more generally, powers so much of NZ’s economy, but the value of this water is a matter of perception.

Consider bottled water. We’re presented with three bottles, each with very different prices: Tai Tapu water from The Store at $4.60/L, carbonated water from Springfresh for $10/L, and a bottle of 420 brand water that we’re told once fetched a lofty $150/L at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant in London, Claridge’s. Slight differences in the composition of the water (and its marketing) can yield huge differences in perceived value, and hence price.

Most of the water exported from NZ, however, doesn’t travel in bottles, but is embedded in the production of the food that we grow. This is the trade in virtual water, derived from rainfall and irrigation, and is of great value to the NZ economy. But because water has often been seen as plentiful it is given a low value, or sometimes none at all.

This is basic economics: the value of a product or resource increases with its scarcity. And as the value of the water increases, there is more money to be made in capturing and using it more efficiently.

On this note, the show gives us two vignettes. One is of an Aussie economist who sees an economic opportunity in climate change, as it encourages the development of (and profit from) new water-saving technologies. And a second of two Kiwi entrepreneurs who have helped develop (and profited from) such technologies.

And so whether we take water for granted or not depends on the value that we give it. This value appears to be rising, though as I have described before, different people assign different values to water. Indeed, water can be valued as an economic good or also as a cultural, environmental or recreational good. Recognising all these different values within the water resource allocation process is a significant challenge for NZ.

I’ll leave my summary there, then, but do see the episode in full. Te Radar puts a comedian’s touch on an important issue, and how could he go wrong with lines like this?

‘It’s not rocket science, it’s just hydrology. Which is a science all of its own; doesn’t generally involve rockets.’