Water governance in New Zealand: An introduction

By Waiology 01/03/2013

By Daniel Collins


“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

So goes the saying, often dubiously attributed to Mark Twain, when talking about water politics in the western US. And while New Zealanders are fortunate to have a much wetter climate (and tend to prefer beer or wine), we are no strangers to fights over water.

We see these tensions time and time again in the news. Fishing vs. irrigation in Canterbury. Greens vs. dams in Hawkes Bay. Residents vs. Auckland Council over rates. The Maori Council vs. the Government over ownership. As a nation, we have diverse and, at times, conflicting values when it comes to water.

To help resolve these tensions we turn to some form of governing body or another. Whether it is the central government, a regional or local government, or even small water user groups, they have been given the authority to make trade-offs on behalf of their constituents – to try to balance rival values. (The word ‘rival’ is in fact derived from the same root as ‘rivulet’ – rivals share the same river.)

This is an immensely difficult job, with many statutes, tools and institutions springing up over the years to help this along. The Resource Management Act (RMA), established in 1991, is the overarching statute for sustainable management of New Zealand’s natural and physical resources, which requires the social, cultural, economic and environmental values of society to be balanced. The 2011 National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) provides further national instruction for water, while Water Conservation Orders (WCOs) offer a means to protect outstanding rivers within a region. But the engine rooms of water governance in NZ are the regional councils. Largely delineated along catchment boundaries, they set regional policies and plans, and most have mechanisms to seek community input and engagement.

Sitting outside these governmental structures has been the Land and Water Forum (LAWF). Concluding last year, it brought the many competing interests together for collaborative, closed-door discussions on water management. It sought consensus and through three publicly released reports it delivered a suite of recommendations to the government. Some from the first report have been adopted but we do not yet know which of the remaining will be taken up.

What is becoming strikingly obvious – with the LAWF process, with the Maori water ownership debate, and so on – is that water governance in New Zealand is becoming increasingly collaborative and integrative. Frameworks are fed from the top, values are fed from the bottom, science and economics inform from the side, and complex negotiations go on in the middle. For this to be a success, it is important to understand the various issues and developments in an open forum.

With this in mind, for the month of March (coinciding with World Water Day on the 22nd), Waiology is running a series of articles on water governance, drawn from water experts across New Zealand: central and local government, universities and research institutes, consultants, and stakeholders. And in keeping with Waiology’s primary focus, each contributor has been asked to give some attention to the role of science in the process.

So stay tuned and contribute to the discussions on water, governance and the role of science.

Update April 8, 2013: The final article in the series has now been published.

Dr Daniel Collins is a hydrologist and water resource scientist at NIWA.

0 Responses to “Water governance in New Zealand: An introduction”

  • “Frameworks are fed from the top, values are fed from the bottom, science and economics inform from the side, and complex negotiations go on in the middle.” That is a good insight, but incomplete, like all single-sentence summaries of complex phenomena. Science, economics and the sources of the ‘frameworks’ are not value-free, so “values” are more multi-directional than the other three inputs mentioned. And, inputs from some organised groups, especially including tangata whenua and conservation or industry groups, are so coherent and informative that they resemble the science and economic inputs more than the expression of individual and community values.