Water Bottling In New Zealand Must End

As we head to the September election, water issues will be high on the election radar. Given the state of our freshwater sources, it is imperative we ban water bottling in New Zealand, especially since we have enough problems with our water as it is. Nitrates and phosphates from fertilizers used on farms degrade water quality, eutrophying rivers and streams and choking the life out of them. Increasing irrigation, especially in dry areas like Canterbury, put pressure on already straining water supplies and exacerbate the problems caused by nutrients. 

Many parts of the Far North are under extreme water restrictions, and supplies are so low that some marae are considering closing. Meanwhile, in other parts of the region, consents were granted for avocado growers to extract water from the Aupouri aquifer, despite concerns from environmentalists about contamination of said groundwater sources. It doesn’t sit well with people that our water resources are being put under pressure so a few people can make money, and in the case of the avocado growers, you are talking about a highly water intensive crop in a very dry part of the country. 

Placing value on making money over people’s rights to water is infuriating, so people are understandably angry that bottling companies pay next to nothing for the water they take. A Herald report found that New Zealand ratepayers pay about 500 times more for water than bottling companies, $1.60 per cubic meter while bottlers pay about $0.03. When a litre bottle sells for about $2.50, you know these companies are making easy money. It is absurd that they pay so little but because the government believes that no one can own water, companies cannot be charged for the water itself, only measly fees associated with the management and regulation of the water.

To put it nicely, that management of water quality is piss-poor, with a high number of rivers still unsafe for swimming. Plastic pollution makes it worse, like the plastic beads were found in the water and land near Cloud Ocean’s water bottling plant in Canterbury. The fine for this non-compliance? A $750 fine and two abatement notices, essentially, written slaps on the wrist. With such pathetic consequences it’s no surprise companies believe they can get away with anything. 

Then there is the plastic issue. Otakiri Springs estimates it would create 3.7 million plastic bottles each day, or a whopping 1.35 billion a year. That’s a lot of plastic being created from one plant, much of which will end up in oceans and streams due to abysmal recycling standards around the world. Unfortunately, the Environment Court is not allowed to consider such distant effects in its decision to grant consents which is ridiculous because our contribution to any global environmental issue should absolutely be considered in any such decision. 

Then again, we know the law is rarely designed to protect the environment for the environment’s sake. Last year the Greens faced backlash when Eugenie Sage granted Otakiri Springs consent to expand their bottling plant near Whakatane. She claimed as Minister she is forced to abide by the Overseas Investment Act which, while true, highlights our collective distorted priorities. 

We saw such priorities during the Australian bushfire when students at Tamborine Mountain Area School were asked to stay home due to a lack of water. As emergency supplies sent by the government made their way to the region, water miners were taking water to a Coca-Cola factory in the opposite direction. In Stanthorpe, when residents were put under extreme water conditions the day after a Chinese water mining company was given the green light to extract water from nearby. The day will come when we have similar situations here. 

Scenarios like this raise an important question about priorities: why are people’s livelihoods less important than the profits of a few corporations? Ultimately, this is what it comes down to. A rational person would assume environmental legislation exists to preserve natural resources like water for future generations to use. However, most such laws are simply mechanisms to help corporations extract those resources for as long as possible.  

A clear example of this is California’s Strawberry Creek, sucked dry by Nestle. The company was inexplicably granted consent by the Forest Service to continue operating in the area for another five years despite that same organisation acknowledging that Nestle’s previous actions had adversely impacted water supply in the region. This happens with companies in all sorts of extractive industries – look at the state of our fishing stocks for example. We don’t know when to stop. 

Here and abroad, exploiting nature is so rampant because of the belief in free market ideologies, even when those ideologies are clearly flawed. For example, water bottling companies are granted consent to operate as long as they provide jobs that the region needs, however. However, there is no way of guaranteeing those jobs are secure, and often we find out how precarious those jobs are.

Again, Cloud Ocean is a great example to demonstrate this. Set up in 2017, the company was forced to lay off 125 staff a year later due to poor sales in China, which hardly seems like a welcome boost of stable employment the area needs. The flawed belief that creating jobs is inherently positive for rural regions is an idea that must be challenged if we are to raise the standard of living in rural New Zealand, because it is not working. 

Some argue that we should at least be making money from these water sales, and while it is undeniably unjust that a company can pay less than $1000 for millions of litres of water, this misses the point. Treating such a precious resource as a commodity results in what happens to most commodities: the exploitation of the resource until it runs out. We have to shift from this way of thinking and start thinking of the big picture. 

As the climate changes, droughts will become longer and more severe while storms and floods can contaminate fresh water supplies. There may very well come a time when we wished we had shown more concern for our water, because it could be the difference between life and death. 

So how do things change?

The most obvious individual action we can all take is to not buy bottled water. Get yourself a stainless steel reusable bottle, if not for environmental reasons, then get one for the fact it keeps your water cool for longer. Bonus fact: it also keeps your beer or cider cool for those sunny days at the beach.

In conjunction with this, our cities need to invest in more public drinking fountains. Most cities do a reasonable job of providing these, but there is room for improvement. The more readily available this water is, the less people need to buy bottled water. 

Most importantly we need to talk about water ownership. There are growing calls for Maori ownership of waterways, especially acknowledging the Crown’s failure to prevent the degradation of our waterways. This of course will be a contentious issue, but is a conversation we need to have. 

Another option that free-market enthusiasts would love is genuine public ownership and management, which means there might still be room for bottled water in the future but run by the state rather than private companies. This way, production only needs to happen to meet genuine need, such as during emergencies, rather than for profit. This means water sources won’t be polluted or over-exploited, and in times of crisis, those who are in need aren’t price gouged and forced to pay twice the normal price for water, as some in Australia reportedly did

Whatever the best course of action may be, we need to put a stop to water bottling now and figure it out. Remember, this is only the tip of the iceberg; our water sources are threatened by drought, contamination, and other sources of extraction such as irrigation, all of which also need to be addressed. The Coalition’s bold plan, which they failed to execute, was to put a levy on water bottling. That isn’t good enough.  For the future of our water, we can do better.

The Importance of Speaking Your Mind

I’ve been trying to get this blogging thing started for a long time now but my tendency to procrastinate and criticize my own work has tanked every effort so far. Being too self-conscious to expose my writing to criticism hasn’t helped either. However, I am back at it again, and in this first post, I think it is necessary to first explain why I am doing this. Perhaps it is a habit from my brief teaching career, but I believe that to appreciate any task or piece of work you must first understand what it is trying to accomplish. I intend to do just that in this post by putting my cards on the table and trying to explain, without rambling too long, why I decided to do this. This post will be rather personal and idealistic, but hopefully it gives the reader an understanding of what makes me tick and offers an occasional nugget of wisdom or advice.

So why am I starting a blog? As those who know me are aware, I can be somewhat opinionated about social and political issues like economic inequality and climate change. Particularly in recent years, I have come to appreciate the power social media gives us to share, discuss and debate ideas, something I noticed when I wrote about child poverty and taxes. It was heartening to see people around New Zealand talking about what I had said and since I received positive feedback, I figured I should keep writing about issues that matter and hope others either relate to what I say or consider things from a different perspective.

Silence isn’t always easy.

Part of why I have become more vocal recently is because I am tired of feeling like it was wrong to speak up, which is how I felt a lot of my life. I have always thought there were so many things wrong with the world, like how so many people lived in poverty and struggled through life while others had it so easy. It was especially difficult growing up and seeing that it was mainly Maori like me who struggled, at least in the Far North where I lived, with poverty, substance abuse and incarceration. It was even harder not understanding why this was the case. Worse, it seemed to me like no one cared, because if people really cared for others, wouldn’t something have been done about it? Or is this just how the world works; some are poor, some are rich, and that’s life? If that was the case, it wasn’t a world that I was proud to be part of. I felt helpless because I had no answers and didn’t know what I could do to make things better, so I bottled my emotions, put my head down and carried on with life.  

I knew even then that things only get better once we start talking about our problems, but I wasn’t comfortable talking to many people about how I felt for fear of being seen as different or weak. When you question the fundamental structure of society, or dare to suggest that things are wrong with the way we live, people will think you’re crazy or naive. For years, I thought that there was something wrong with me for always feeling sorry for the plights of others, strangers I would never meet or know, and I was given the impression that I would grow older, ‘become an adult’ and accept that injustices like poverty and inequality are just part of life and there is nothing we can do about them.

Now that I am older and I understand the world somewhat, I know that believing something is right simply because it’s “just the way things are” is the craziest perspective one can have. There is nothing mature or ‘adult’ about blind conformity, and while others may understandably prefer the comforts of willful ignorance or apathy, I realised that I can and will never be like that. I know that I may be ridiculed for being such a “bleeding-heart”, but compassion is a strength not a weakness, and worrying about people’s perception of you seems silly when real people out there face such daunting challenges. It is important to speak because when we choose to be silent, we support the status quo and condemn those less fortunate and the environment to continual struggle and exploitation. Therefore, I plan to write to stay true to my myself and to promote empathy and compassion as it is my way of contributing to the better society I know we can be.

It is important to act…but how?

Now you might ask: “is being another keyboard/ social justice warrior really accomplishing anything?” I will try to explain how it can in the next half of this post. As I write, I hope I don’t come across as some holier-than-thou activist judging people for their decisions and for not doing their fair share because in all honesty, I don’t have a leg to stand on. I talk the talk, but my actions haven’t always reflected my values. Yeah, I’ve donated to a couple of charities over the years, but I haven’t gone down to the mission to help those less fortunate. My record of recycling properly has been patchy at best and I have contributed more waste than I care to admit. My food choices leave much to work on, and while I have no intention of going vegan, I can still make better decisions in regards to food miles and ethical considerations. I would like to imagine myself as a more conscientious and socially active citizen, but I have indulged my vices like laziness and far too often. I have lived a relatively privileged life, a position which obliges me to do more, so why haven’t I?

The problem is knowing where to start. If the actions you take will make no tangible difference, it’s easy to see them as pointless and just give up. Donating to charities like UNICEF was a noble gesture, but because the same systems and practices responsible for creating that poverty remained unchanged, the poverty would remain. My donation would offer temporary alleviation and little more. Yes, I could have volunteered to feed the homeless, but they would still be homeless after they ate because no radical social welfare policy to prevent further homelessness has  been discussed. We can take certain actions as individuals, but things will only truly change when we address the cause of issues, rather than tinkering at the edges. The neoliberal doctrine would have us believe that the onus is on us as individuals to change, but it takes more than that. People need to have a shared understanding of the causes of problems and what solutions there are for those changes to have a noticeable impact. With issues like economic inequality, you have to convince part of the public that they are wealthy at the expense of many other people, and perhaps they should share some of their wealth via taxes so everyone can lead a comfortable life, which is a fair request. But because this requires sacrifice and lifestyles to change, people will resist the idea that things even need to change and that the problem is not the system but the laziness and greed of others.  

Whether it is outspoken resistance to facts or the more subtle traits of indifference and apathy, trying to convince people to care about others and the environment is an incredibly difficult task. Values like greed, competition and the love of money have been ingrained in us through the education system, the influence of mass media and the heavy rule of public opinion, so to want to change the way we live is to challenge perceptions we have had all our lives. Because it is often like talking to a brick wall and invites such infuriating resistance, I have wanted to just give up so many times. However, that despair faded as I came to accept the fact that progress is hard. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and changing people’s minds is especially slow. It may be that we never see the change we hope for in our lifetimes or get recognition for doing the right thing, and that is hard to accept. Tiresome, draining arguments and ridicule are an unavoidable part of it all. But what gets me through is the reminder that it is not just about me, or even my generation, but it is about the generations that follow. It is making sure that our children and grandchildren do not inherit a world plagued by issues affects their ability to live long, happy lives. 

Finally…the point.

I am no expert on the issues I discuss and I don’t know for certain what the right solutions are, but you don’t need to be a genius or celebrity to feel like you can speak up. Too often, the media and influential individuals shape the narrative, which further entrenches power imbalances in support of the status quo. All our voices have power, and simply participating in conversation is the first step towards positive change. While I intend to work on my personal contributions, individual actions alone do not inspire others to act differently unless we are having conversations with each other about our values and aspirations and why these ideas and actions are important. To create a better tomorrow, we need to work past our differences and understand that we are all in this together, and I hope that by writing, I may plant even just a couple of seeds that help make that happen.