Is this the start of "water wars"?

Mad Max Fury Road – a critically acclaimed film and a massive box office hit last year, but is it more than entertainment?

The movie is set in an apocalyptic future where water is a precious and rare resource, with a tyrannical ruler strictly controlling its access and people suffering.  Is it a premonition of our future?

It may seem fanciful to link such outrageous imagery with the real world – or is it?  This week has seen water wars erupting everywhere.

Concern for water quality is moving beyond the space of environmental activists and dairy intensification.  The latest outrage surrounds discoveries of how much water is being bottled in New Zealand for export, with the irony being the location prompting the attention is in Canterbury – our home of water quality controversy.

The Ashburton District Council has given consent for 1.4 billion litres of freshwater to be extracted, bottled and exported every year for the paultry cost of a resource consent fee.  And they are not alone – there are apparently a number of, mainly overseas-owned, companies already doing the same all around New Zealand.  This resource that we say no-one owns returns a profit for these businesses without any royalties returning to the council.

Interestingly, there’s been support from unlikely quarters with groups opposing dairy intensification pointing out that export of water is significantly more efficient than milk, with one litre of milk taking up to 250 litres of water to produce, thanks to irrigation.

A major irrigation project for Hawkes Bay, the Tukituki dam, is closer to going ahead with more farmers signing up to take water.  The cost estimate is at $900 million – let that amount sink in.  I just can’t imagine how this project will ever break even, let alone work economically for the farmers with the model based on water being sold at 27 centres per cubic metre.

Part of me is glad a cost for water is being built in, as a necessity or otherwise – it’s one of those externalities that doesn’t get counted.  With climate change, we know the pattern of rainfall is changing.  Some places, like Hawkes Bay and Canterbury, are predicted to get drier with a greater likelihood of drought, so maybe the mighty dollar will drive more analysis of what is the best use of water in these places.

Back in Canterbury, two tough pieces of water-related news this week.  First, there were 30 sheep that died after exposure to a toxic algal bloom at Lake Forsyth on Banks Peninsula.  Then, Fish and Game has taken the unusual move to ban winter fishing in some locations due to declining water quality and an associated drop in fish stocks.

Further afield, there lack of action on contaminated water from the Flint River in Michigan, United States, is shocking.  Investigations are underway into what knowledge officials had before lead poisoning was confirmed.  There are claims that because the Flint community is impoverished and less politically powerful, less care was taken with their water supply and their concerns ignored.  It certainly makes the premise of Mad Max less outlandish.

But what about here – with our oft-quoted national value of egalitarianism, we don’t kowtow to the powerful when it comes to life’s essentials like water, do we?  Hmmm, jury is out. 

There are certainly some recent patterns around deferring to the rich, whether its foreign trusts acting as tax havens, or the lack of action on taking a cut from property speculators’ Auckland fortunes.  It seems to me that being rich carries a fair bit of weight here, as it does in the rest of the world.

However, this Native American quote sums up the conundrum: “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realise that one cannot eat money.