In a country where it is perfectly safe to drink the water that flows from a tap, it is incredible that anybody can make money by selling water in bottles. But astonishingly, they do. Bottled water has become one of the ubiquitous accessories of modern life, carried even in cities as though we needed to slake a thirst urgently wherever we might be. It sells at prices that rival less healthy drinks and commands valuable shelf space in retail display cabinets. Branded water is a marvel of marketing - proof that it is indeed possible to sell anything if it is cleverly presented.

The only question it presents is, should the companies selling water in bottles get it for free? The issue has arisen over exports. Few seemed to mind freely available water being sold domestically in bottles but if it is going to be an export industry, many think there ought to be a national royalty. If water is the new oil in a parched world, those who profit from it should pay for the resource.

The problem, as Environment Minister Nick Smith argued in our pages recently, is that bottled water consumes a tiny amount by comparison with other industries, especially dairying and horticulture. A litre of milk, he said, takes about 250 litres of water to produce. It would be difficult to impose a charge on bottling companies without imposing the same charge on all commercial users, which would greatly increase the cost of products such as milk and put those exports at risk. He said bottled water accounts for just 0.004 per cent of our annual resource. Is it worth charging all commercial users for the sake of a royalty from water exports?

Yes, says Labour's environment spokesman, David Parker. He argues that while water is abundant in New Zealand, "pristine water" of drinking standard is a scarce resource. And as such, it is both fair and economic to put a price on it. A price on a scarce resource is the fairest way to allocate it and ensures it will be put to the most economic use. Labour would exempt households from a charge because total household consumption is small by comparison with industry and farm irrigation. But all commercial users of clean water would pay for it. That could make it more economic for industries to use recycled water where it would do no harm, conserving resources of drinking quality.

Advertisement

There is less disagreement than there appears. Both sides want to put a price on water without calling it that. Dr Smith said the Government "is open to a modest charge" to recover the cost of managing water resources while Mr Parker prefers to talk of a "resource rental" rather than a water price. Water, he argues, has become a limited resource in some parts of the country where the demand for farm irrigation is reaching the capacity of rivers and aquifers to supply it. The fairest and most economic way to allocate a limited resource is to charge for it.

Both of them cling to the fiction that households do not pay for water but only for the infrastructure to deliver it. Charges by volume make this claim nonsense. Households know they pay for water and so should all users, including the dairy industry. Bottled water can bear it.