Two decades of reports have shown New Zealand’s water infrastructure is failing, and not enough investment is being made to ensure it’s reliable and safe for the future. 

As a result, more New Zealanders are getting sick from drinking water, water mains are bursting and leaking, and raw sewage is being discharged into rivers and harbours.

The government has made a plan to combine all of New Zealand’s water infrastructure, which will then be split into four central entities through the Three Waters Programme. 

The reform is considered controversial with some politicians speaking against it. 

Here is what you need to know about it.

The Three Waters are made up of stormwater, wastewater and drinking water.

When it comes to these services, the reform aims to look at: 

  • Stormwater: How we deal with the water collected from rain through pipes, drains, and channels to prevent flooding and pollution of our drinking water.
  • Wastewater: How we collect, process and release the water we use in things like toilets, showers, and sinks, as well as industry.
  • Drinking water: How we ensure the water we drink is safe and clean.

Currently, these water systems are handled by 67 different council-owned and operated services.

Reports from the past twenty years have shown that there hasn’t been enough investment into upgrading and maintaining these systems, resulting in:

  • 35,000 New Zealanders getting sick from drinking water every year
  • More than half a million New Zealanders not having access to safe drinking water at some point in the last year
  • 20 percent of drinking water being lost to leaks which accounts for more than half the supply in some areas
  • Frequent water main bursts and raw sewage being discharged in freshwater and harbours
  • A quarter of New Zealand’s waste treatment plants operating on expired consents

The government has proposed that water management in New Zealand gets split into four new entities. 

These are: 

  • Entity A: Auckland and Northland
  • Entity B: Central and West Coast of the North Island
  • Entity C: East Coast of the North Island, Wellington, and upper South Island.
  • Entity D: The rest of the South Island

These entities would be owned by the councils involved but funding would come from the government for long-term infrastructure investments.

The proposal could add as much as $23 billion to the country’s Gross Domestic Product - New Zealand’s measure of economic growth - and create between 5000 to 9000 more jobs, according to a study by financial consultants, Deloitte. 

A focus of the reform is making sure water use upholds the concept of Te Mana o Te Wai - the idea that we should prioritise the health of water over our use of it.

In a statement from Ngāi Tahu, the iwi said they support the reform, particularly with its focus on Te Mana o Te Wai and the government’s commitment to having iwi/hapū and councils involved in all decision making.

Dr Lokesh Padhye, senior lecturer from the University of Auckland’s department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said there is little debate among the science and engineering community that the current water management system is not working.

He said the success of this proposed system will rely on how well funded these new entities will be.

These reforms would cost around $120 billion dollars.

There has been resistance from some councils. 

South Canterbury’s three mayors previously told the media they felt like their assets were being “confiscated”. One Christchurch councillor called the Government “a revolting pack of thieving liars”.

More than half of all consented water use in New Zealand is for irrigation and Canterbury is responsible for 64 percent of that. 

There is still uncertainty about how the new system would impact the agricultural sector's supply and costs for irrigation. 

National Party spokesperson for local government Simon Watts said in a statement that National will not support the reform, as it strips councils of control over their assets.

The next steps for the programme will be two more working groups, a Planning Technical Working Group and a Rural Supplies Technical Working Group, to iron out the plan.

The final plans will then be drafted into a bill that will need to pass through Parliament.

The government is working to have the new programme go live on July 1, 2024.

Top Image: A person filling up their glass with water from the tap. (File photo) Photo: Istock/GankaTt

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