Five reality checks on Maori fresh water rights

Susan GuthrieTreaty10 Comments

Maori rights to fresh water deserve a better quality of debate than we’ve seen recently. The debate is actually about three things: acknowledging and implementing Maori rights to fresh water; allocating the economic benefits of water; and the New Zealand constitution. All are important issues that require separate, reasoned debate and good policy development.

However, the Key Government, driven by self-interest, refuses to develop policy on any of these tricky issues. Instead, it wraps all three together under the mantle of “resource management”, turfs them off to local government, and awaits the fight from afar, confident that none of what emerges will stick to it.

So how should it be approaching these challenging national issues?

Let’s begin by dispelling the fairytale that nobody owns fresh water. When someone takes water from a river or a spring they profit from it. They deny others the use of it. That’s as close in concept to private property as you’ll get.

Yes, there is more water flowing to replace it, but that future flow is not guaranteed. Not only are some rivers and springs drying up, long-term contracts to water bottlers and irrigators are siphoning off those future flows into private, profitable, exclusive uses that will occur decades into the future.

The second reality check is that, of all New Zealanders, Maori have rights that most closely approximate property rights in water. I know many Maori will find my use of the word “property” here offensive as they instead view their relationship with water as one of guardianship. But in the context of this debate I think it is helpful to acknowledge that the right to care and protect, if it is to be effective, needs an element of exclusivity (one authority) and exercising guardianship also produces benefits not only for the waterways but for people (future generations).

It’s not a perfect parallel, I know, but working within the limitations of the English language, hopefully my framing of Maori rights as a “property” issue will help progress the debate.

When someone takes a quantity of water from a river or a spring they profit from it. They deny others the use of it

The third reality check is that it doesn’t matter which way you approach the issue – using Article 2 of the Treaty of Waitangi or international legal norms with respect to indigenous people – Maori have “property” rights to freshwater which others simply don’t share.

The fourth reality check is that the issue of how to allocate water, and charge for its use, is a nationwide one which requires a nationwide policy. There is a great variety in the financial strength of local authorities and great variety in the amount of fresh water flowing in regions.

Some authorities simply don’t have the resources to do the job that is needed to ensure a sustainable, Treaty-compliant use of water.

Even if the local authorities are able to design a water management scheme which involves and benefits local iwi, this creates a new problem. Many Maori are urban-based and not affiliated with an iwi yet just as entitled as iwi to share in the economic value attached to fresh water. We should avoid a repeat of injustices of the fisheries Treaty settlement which saw urban Maori shut out of the settlement. Only a nationwide water policy is capable of ensuring a fair treatment of urban Maori.

The fifth reality check is that we have rules and processes that define how communities resolve issues. Some of these are defined in legislation but many aren’t. These rules form part of our Constitution. While he doesn’t use these terms, Don Brash’s recent article was about the Constitution and it is a very important topic.

In New Zealand the Constitution seems to be taken for granted, it’s rarely discussed in public. In other countries constitutional matters are given a great deal of attention. There is a lot of research available about what a constitution should do (create a peaceful, prosperous society) and what rules and processes are most likely to deliver success.

If we bothered to look at this research we’d see that what is likely to be ideal for New Zealand is very different to what we have and indeed, what is now being asked of local government.

These three important issues – Maori rights to fresh water, allocating the economic benefits produced by fresh water, and the processes communities use to resolve issues – are resolvable. But first Government must be willing and able to show true leadership. That is where the problem lies.

Five reality checks on Maori fresh water rights was last modified: May 16th, 2016 by Susan Guthrie
About the Author
Susan Guthrie

Susan Guthrie

Susan is an economist who, prior to joining the Morgan Foundation in 2010, held various private and public sector roles. She has worked for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and the NZ Treasury, as an international economist in the financial sector in New Zealand and Hong Kong, and as an advocate for consumer rights. In 2011 she co-authored with Gareth Morgan ‘The Big Kahuna’, a book advocating tax and welfare reform for New Zealand and in 2014 she co-authored with Gareth ‘Are we there yet? the future of the Treaty of Waitangi’.

  • Steve Harris

    I agree and I acknowledge that Maori ironically are in a better position than my own self to carry the fight to the government. If they win, I and all other kiwis win…

  • James Hilford

    Good article – how about a rights based society approach, that may work?

  • Coops

    Sorry you are wrong Gareth it’s about time Maori stopped trying to suckle of the tax titty and stand on their own two feet treaty of waitangi should have been settled 10 years ago, dragging this out taking tax of current wage earners is wrong

    • Andrew Maciver

      Except that it has often been the Government dragging the chain on Treaty negotiations.

    • JabbaTheHutt

      In what part of this specific debate does “Maori stopped trying to suckle of the tax titty” have to do with anything? Absolutely nothing. This isn’t talking about what Maori treaty rights would cost the consumer, it’s arguing that Maori tribes would be able to make a stand for water rights, instead of giving it away to foreigners who are profiting.

      And what is the government doing on behalf of these so called “current wage earners” in regards to water rights? Not much, if anything at all. They’re lazy, arrogant and ignorant.

  • Teina Moetara

    English terminology here is problematic when trying to reveal Maori relationship to water, to anything. Words like ‘own’ ‘property’ and even ‘guardianship’ doesn’t do justice to the relationship. Where I am from “ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au” is my position. I am the river, and the river is me. Not a wishy washy sentiment, but a truth. What you do to the river, you have already done to me. When I protect the water, I am protecting myself, like I would protect my family.

  • David West

    For an excellent discussion on a NZ constitution, go here: http://www.converge.org.nz/pma/MatikeMaiAotearoaReport.pdf

  • mark

    Im not a Treaty advocate but do subscribe to the ACT view of property ownership. Its very simple. Maori owned everything before Europeans came. The signing of the Treaty did not strip Maori of these property rights in fact I believe it gave Maori the same property rights as Europeans.
    If anyone owns water its Maori. If they were compensated at some point by the government then fair enough but this never happened. Therefore as the owner of the water Maori should have the right to say it belongs to everyone or no one.

    • Duncan Cairncross

      No
      The Treaty was between the “Crown” and the Maori equivalent – the chiefs of the various tribes

      That tribal society was it’s people and it’s structure –
      But the people voted with their feet and left the tribal structure – nobody now lives under the authority of the chiefs

      The current Iwi do not have the support of their people – they are no more a representation of the people who live here than the Clan Chiefs of Scotland are representative of the Scots

      YES – the people who lived here have been badly treated – but it’s too late to fix that – the individuals are DEAD

      Now we should be looking after ALL of the poor of our nation – and paying no heed to the wrinkled remnants of a obsolete tribal past

  • Liam te Marshian

    The simple fact is, it is water, water is a must for life. Now I understand the Maori Kaitiaki belief and prefer it over someone “owning” the water, this is an idea the Europeans brought with them when they ventured into foreign lands in order to have some claim to it through money or family. for cultures of a tribal family based background such as Maori they saw the land as something that if you cared for it would care for you and your whanau. This idea of existing provides us as the Human family a more fundamental way of viewing the Earth we all share and live on. Now using the Tribal way of life but applying it to all humans not just certain cultures, and mixing it with a bit of something from other cultures I believe we could advance as a species. We must think of the future, divisions among us still stand from the actions of our ancestors, how ever their time has past and ours is happening, now and till we pass from this plain. If we are able to gather together for the same cause then we can give our future generations a much better existence. sure there are those who seek power from themselves and most likely always will be, but we have a chance in every moment to change the way we exist and I am aware that many people will defend the way we currently exist because they fair change or the current situation benefits them and they do not want to give that up. This is where we must consciously evolve in the aspect of understanding that we are all humans, we all have dreams, feelings and needs, one of the being Water. We can advance in so many ways but we are held in suspense by the way things are now, but humans die and with them so do their beliefs, so imagine how your childrens children will grow up,m what world will it be for them, a world where certain people have create a system that allows them the monopoly of power or a world where we have come together as one and advanced ouselves and our species to the point of not having to work jobs we dont want for money to buy things we only need because that is the current situations, as our lives fade as some senselessly chase the illusion of a numerical system set in place to divide us, never living their dreams becuase money has become a must in our world to exist. not all of us have come to the understanding that is isn’t necessary to live, we can grow our food, we can share our technologies for the advancement of humans, we can build a Utopian system where everyone has the chance to live out their Dream and make it their reality, without fear of going hungry, being homeless, not being loved because one cannot provide the base standards for living currently required to live in the struggle we called life. I know this started off being about water but when you can see and understand the bigger picture and know that there is a better way to exist then you must share it, believe it and become it. Instead of living in fear of other humans we must learn to love our fellow beings for then we shall find peace in knowing we are safe with our kin to live out the lives we really want and not what is indoctrinated into us as a “Normal Life”. Be the change you want to see in the world.

    Peace out.