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Some of New Zealand's biggest tribes are drawing up plans to take on the Government over control of the country's water.

The Weekend Herald understands that leaders of Tainui, Ngai Tahu, Tuwharetoa and Whanganui met on Thursday to develop a strategy to combat the exclusion of Maori from control of the country's fresh water.

The hui was called and hosted in Taupo by influential Tuwharetoa paramount chief Tumu te Heuheu, a key adviser and mentor of new Maori King Tuheitia.

The iwi argue that they have property rights to the billions of dollars earned from the lakes and rivers, which are the source of much of the country's drinking water.

If the move succeeds, it could see water users depending on iwi for their supply. Commercial users, in particular, could face an iwi levy.

Seventy per cent of Auckland's water comes from five Hunua dams and the Waikato River within the Tainui tribal boundary.

A tribal source said the Waitangi Tribunal or a court challenge were among the options being considered.

A working party of legal representatives from each tribe is understood to have been formed after Thursday's meeting, to research and seek a strategy to increase iwi influence over the use and control of water.

This information will be presented at a pan-tribal political forum hosted by Tuwharetoa next month at Pukawa, where King Tuheitia is expected to meet iwi leaders.

Pukawa is the site where the powerful Tuwharetoa chief Iwikau te Heuheu Tukino III called iwi leaders together in 1856 to discuss turning the Kotahitanga (unity) movement into a more concrete political force - the Kingitanga.

This is significant because the latest move has been seen as a re-emergence of greater unity and co-operation among the country's tribes.

A source who attended Thursday's meeting said there was growing frustration among Maori at the continued Crown refusal to acknowledge iwi access and rights to water.

The source said the "Block of Four" were "heavy hitters" representing around 160,000 beneficiaries, and controlling more than a billion dollars in assets.

The Government has rejected any moves by iwi to share in the control of water. Past settlements, including the Te Arawa lake settlement, acknowledged iwi ownership of lakebeds, but not the water above.

The Government maintains that water is not owned, but the Crown controls how it is managed for all New Zealanders.

Mark Solomon, chairman of South island-based Ngai Tahu, said Thursday's meeting added momentum to an issue simmering within Maoridom.

"No matter what the Government are saying, they are moving towards water becoming tradeable, which creates a property right. If that is the case iwi have a right under the Treaty as tangata whenua."

The issue is predicted to dwarf previous claims, including the $170 million Maori fisheries settlement, or Maori attempts to seek the right to claim title to the foreshore and seabed.

Another iwi leader who attended the meeting said: "The Crown are moving towards a tradeable quota, which creates a property right, which puts it in the same situation as fishing stock, where Maori are guaranteed a slice of fish when a catch quota is applied."

Another source at the meeting said the issue was about ownership of water, and iwi were gearing up to act before "another injustice occurred".

He said a unified Maori claim to the Waitangi Tribunal, the High Court or even an international court would follow.

Water fight

* Maori tribal leaders are preparing to fight the Government for control of the country's water, which is worth billions of dollars.

* Some say they have property rights over water under the Treaty of Waitangi.

* Some also predict this battle will be bigger than the row about rights over the foreshore and seabed.

* The Government says no one owns water but the Crown manages it for all New Zealanders.