The value and values of water

By Waiology 19/05/2014 1


By Suzie Greenhalgh, Jim Sinner and Natasha Berkett

The Land and Water Forum, the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and government proposals for further freshwater reforms all recognise the increasing competition between values for and uses of our freshwater resources in New Zealand. This competition has opened a new lexicon around what we mean by value and values and how these concepts are used in freshwater planning.

There is a voluminous international literature on environmental values, and if anything is clear it is that this term is used in many different ways. In some contexts, values are ethical principles and guides to decision-making, such as kaitiakitanga, equity and efficiency. In other contexts, value refers to how well something contributes to a particular objective, e.g. swimming value means how good a river is for swimming. Value can also mean how much something is worth in monetary terms, e.g. 50 cubic metres per second in a given river can generate power worth $X million per year.

In still other settings, value is a way of knowing or orienting oneself to the world, e.g. tūrangawaewae represents the place where one feels empowered and connected to one’s ancestors.

In discussions about freshwater management in New Zealand, values can mean any and all of these things, and can be summed up in the somewhat circular definition as ‘things that have value or meaning’, e.g., swimming, native fish, irrigation, mauri.

Values underpin management objectives for planning and policy, such as maintaining the ability to swim in a specific swimming hole, improving eel populations, providing for the irrigation of agricultural land or reducing nitrates in drinking water.

While there is no master list of values, the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and some of the emerging government documents like the National Objectives Framework identify some values to be considered in setting limits. These include electricity generation, stock watering, food production and harvesting, natural character, swimming, drinking and ceremonial uses. Each of these values, along with most other values present in a given water body, will be affected by both the quality and quantity of freshwater in that water body.

The Land and Water Forum recommended that, subject to some bottom lines, councils and their communities use collaborative processes to find an appropriate balance between competing values, and the Government has proposed to amend the Resource Management Act to provide for this. In collaborative processes, participants should determine the indicators they will use to assess the acceptability of policy options, based on their values. It may not be necessary to rank or prioritise these values explicitly. The collaborative group identifies policies that could provide for these values and assesses the consequences, and seeks a mix of policies and intended outcomes that everyone can accept.

In a traditional process, this overall balancing of values is done by elected councillors or, ultimately, hearing commissioners and the Environment Court, which may also have a role in confirming or amending judgements reached through collaboration.

In summary, the various meanings of value should be recognised and respected within decision-making processes. While there is no definitive set of values, and values and their importance will vary with the context and characteristics of a river, stream or wetland, values are crucial to enable councils and communities to identify what they are managing freshwater for.


Suzie Greenhalgh is an economist at Landcare Research. Jim Sinner is a senior scientist at Cawthron Institute. Natasha Berkett is the Policy and Planning Manager at Cawthron Institute.

Further Reading:
Berkett N, Challenger I, Sinner J, Tadaki M. 2013. Values, collaborative processes and indicators for freshwater planning. Cawthron Institute Report No. 2353 for Auckland Council. [Report]
Sinner J, Tadaki M. Understanding Conflict over Freshwater Values in a Regional Plan. Policy brief. Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research. [Report]
Tadaki M, Sinner J. In press. Measure, model, optimise: understanding reductionist concepts of value in freshwater governance. Geoforum.


One Response to “The value and values of water”

  • Excellent deconstruction of the meaning of the term “value” – this really helps understanding the different perspectives that people bring to the collaborative process.