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New Zealand: when a country rich with water is faced with crisis

In July 2020, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, announced an investment of $761 million to maintain and renovate the country’s ageing public hydraulic infrastructures. This announcement signalled the start of a huge plan scheduled over three years, the Three Waters Reform Programme, which involves local authority services responsible for drinking water, wastewater and rainwater. For the government, this financial investment in infrastructures is also an investment in favour of the health of the population and the environment: it will in particular improve the quality of drinking water and resilience to climate change. Furthermore, this reform includes new regulatory standards and a new water service authority “Taumata Arowai”, operating since March 2021.


Decentralised organisation of the water sector in question


 © MaxPixel

The drinking water, wastewater and rainwater services are for the most part divided between 67 different councils, many of which are faced with a lack of financial resources to launch upgrading works. What is more, they are unable to respond to the new challenge of better preserving natural habitats from increased risks of rainwater overflows and other impacts of climate change.

The present system has reached the point of exhaustion: in 2016, an epidemic of the waterborne disease Campylobacter (the bacteria responsible for diarrhoeic diseases), causing the death of four people and making more than 5,000 ill, revealed the problem of water quality. More recently, a lead warning deprived the inhabitants of Otago of drinking water. Sewers have also been ruptured, with poorly treated wastewater running off into rivers. Bernd Gundermann[1] reported that runoff water and excess rainwater flow over the beaches and into the sea, there where the sewers end. All the heavy metals from car brake linings, sheet metal house roofs, gutters and drainpipes are carried until the beaches. At Christchurch, water wells, located on average at a depth of only 25 m, are partially contaminated by nitrates from farms. Since 2018, chlorine has been introduced in the drinking water in Christchurch, the country’s second largest city, to avoid any contamination.


A controversial reform


This reorganisation of the water sector came up against a great deal of local opposition, leading the government to reserve a budget of $2.5 billion a year afterwards to loosen the financial pressure on municipal councils. $500 million will be allocated to them immediately to offset the additional costs of the reform and $2 billion are earmarked for future investments.

In June, the Minister of Local Authorities, Nanaia Mahuta, also announced the establishment of four new regional public bodies over the next three years to determine a new partnership between the local authorities and central government to maintain assets relating to water in the public domain. The government places particular emphasis on the price:


Without reforms, households can expect to pay two to five times more than they pay at present for water services”,

ainsi que l’effet de levier sur l’économie nationale et la meilleure prise en compte des besoins des communautés.

Beyond the political debate, this reform risks failure by not attacking the entire problem of water resources. The protection of sources of freshwater against agricultural and industrial pollution was treated apart.


Necessary adaptation to climate change

More generally, New Zealand is faced with a water crisis, especially in urban areas. Thus, Auckland has been subject to restrictions on water use over the last two months, since water storage capacity is not adapted to the city’s rapid development. The causes of the crisis are multiple and structural:

  • The increase in the national population (+25% in 15 years),
  • Increasingly variable climatic conditions (New Zealand experienced its mildest winter ever recorded with temperatures 1.32° C above average),
  • Ageing infrastructures.

The authorities are obliged to reflect on how they can augment supply, or else change consumption habits.

The problem is planetary. In a study published on 3 August 2021 in the journal Nature, the authors estimate that a third of the world’s urban population are already facing water shortages and that this proportion will rise to half by 2050, exposing nearly 300 large cities. In the next three decades, the need for water for households and industry will increase from 50 to 80% whereas climate change will have an impact on the resource’s geographic distribution and availability. The paths proposed by the authors are known and vary from one continent to another: they range from improving the efficiency of water use to controlling urbanisation in areas where water is scarce, and to better analysing the sustainability of solutions.


Current urban water scarcity – article « Future global urban water scarcity and potential solutions » – revue Nature – 3/08/2021

Increasing water supply by building reservoirs and seawater desalination plants are expensive solutions. Reducing demand requires changing behaviours in a lasting way to face hotter and drier summers. Price incentives and awareness are already encouraging Auckland’s inhabitants to save water: water meters were installed in the 1990s and the inhabitants are billed per unit of water consumed. They use 30% less water than the users of Wellington, who have no meters and are billed at a fixed rate. Household water bills also contain useful information to limit consumption.

For New Zealand’s politicians, the challenge is not only to modify the choices made by water consumers by fixing prices that reflect the true value of water, by taking its scarcity into account, but also to change behaviours towards water resources in a country with abundant natural resources. Bernd Gundermann goes even further by estimating that the remedy is not money or the transfer of responsibility but rather an ethic of collective effort. He favours the principle of subsidiarity to deal with the problem where it exists, and by taking into account local capacities. However, he fears the dilution of responsibilities between different administrative levels at the same time as the effects of the current health crisis are being felt nearly everywhere in the world, tending to strengthen centralised decision-making.

[1] Member of IFGR, Bernd Gundermann is an architect and town planner, and the director of Urbia Group Think Beyond. He has lived in New Zealand for several years.

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