Water is hitting front page headlines across the country.
Too much, not enough. It has become a major focus for cities and rural areas alike - our
country's water woes.
• NZ drought: Auckland set to break record for longest dry spell
• Northland farming leader calls on Govt to declare a drought
• Government declares drought in Northland and parts of Auckland
• Damien O'Connor monitors dry conditions in fear of drought in regions
Water shortages are creeping into towns and cities in many parts of the country, as hot and dry conditions put severe pressure on water availability across New Zealand - not only for farmers but for everyday urban folk too.
Anxious conversations about New Zealand's vulnerability to bush fires are also gaining
In contrast to growing fears about drought, we have the terrible flooding in Southland,
affecting many communities, landscapes and habitats.
Headlines circling about lack of water or too much water - these reveal how vulnerable we are to extreme weather and how this affects freshwater availability and management. Or indeed, New Zealand's lack of a strategy for this.
As parts of Aotearoa suffer under prolonged drought conditions, with shortages affecting rural and urban communities alike, other areas face significant property damage and loss because of massive floods - and still, we have no cohesive strategy to manage prevention and mitigation of this.
The social and financial costs of managing these events during and after the fact, stretch into the multi-millions.
We know that prevention is better than cure, and yet we do not seem to be able to apply this logic to water management.
Investment in planning, governance and infrastructure would significantly reduce the costs of extreme weather events - and could also maximise potential benefits.
This is not just a New Zealand issue, nor is it just an irrigation issue. The United Nations policy brief on climate change and water states: "Climate policy and planning must take an integrated approach to climate change and water management. If we are to create a sustainable future, business as usual is no longer an option and water management needs to be scrutinised through a climate resilience lens. We need more investment in improved hydrological data, institutions and governance, education and capacity development, risk assessment and knowledge sharing."
We can be world leaders in how we respond to our new normal, but we must be bold and be prepared to make tough decisions, as well as compromise, to look 10, 20, 50 years ahead and future-proof the country.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Elizabeth Soal on The Country below:
We are managing and governing our water resources at a regional level. This is entirely appropriate, given that each catchment is unique, and it is critical to ensure that local people are involved in decision-making that directly affects them and the water bodies they care about.
However, as such a small country, it is very difficult for local communities to resource, fund, and respond to complex issues around freshwater and climate change.
Big picture decisions about water infrastructure need to be made at a national level and must take a holistic approach to water and land management.
We cannot approach water issues as a zero-sum gain, where one group benefits at the
expense of another. We must have a national strategy in place to guide our research, planning and investment. This must be led by an independent water commission with cross-party support.
The Ministry for the Environment reports that, by the end of this century, we are likely to experience higher temperatures, rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather including droughts (especially in the east) and floods, a change in rainfall patterns (increased summer rain in the north and east of the North Island and increased winter rain in many parts of the South Island).
In January Niwa published its annual climate summary stating that last year was New
Zealand's fourth warmest year on record, 2016 was the hottest, followed by 2018, which tied with 1998 - and 2020 shows no sign of cooling as temperatures continue to skyrocket in many areas.
In fact, a severe meteorological drought has emerged in northern Auckland, Great Barrier Island and the Far North, and dozens of fire crews have been fighting three fires in bone-dry Canterbury.
We must depoliticise the conversation around the future of New Zealand's water and come together to seek non-partisan policy responses.
The writing is on the wall.
• Elizabeth Soal is the chief executive of Irrigation NZ.