It was politically deft.

In the wake of the Havelock North water disaster and recent public protests, Prime Minister Bill English and his advisers noted the increasing pressure over our bottled water exports.

On his regular Monday morning interviews, English played down the possibility of charging for water and claimed it was all too hard.

But by the afternoon, he'd written to a technical advisory committee at the Ministry for the Environment and asked them to consider charging foreign exporters. The issue was likely nixed until after September. In election year, even a little pressure can force a quick political tack.


In some respects, I sympathise with the Government on the issue of bottled water exports.

The amount of our water extracted and exported each year is preposterously minute in the scheme of things. The 8.7 million litres sounds like an ocean - a milk bottle for every New Zealander. But as part of our total extracted resource, bottled exports represent a teardrop in a swimming pool.

The same cannot be said for the water used by our agriculture sector. And the Government's true colours were further revealed by last week's rejection of a thorough OECD environmental report, painting New Zealand as anything but clean and green.

The report, the third of its kind in 20 years, largely blamed dairying for rising greenhouse gas emissions and declining water standards in our rivers. Steady economic growth has come at the expense of our purest resource.

But did English turn on his heels and immediately consider the possibility of changing policy? Of course not.

He rejected claims the issue has been exacerbated by National's economic and environmental policies.

New Zealand farms use far more water than is bottled and sent overseas - about 600,000 times more. As our farms get more cows, demand on our water resource increases and the more damage is inflicted upon our waterways.

It takes 400 litres of water to produce a single litre of milk. And what does the agriculture sector pay? The same as the foreign exporters - absolutely nothing.


So why isn't there the same uproar over farmers using water that exists over foreign exports?

Farmers collectively use much more of the resource. Their farms cause significantly more damage to our land and waterways than foreign exporters ever have.

The dominant argument is economic. Agriculture is our biggest industry, and we are regularly told a strong dairy sector benefits all of New Zealand.

I call B-S on that. Although the proliferation of dairy farms undoubtedly leads to stronger growth, the economic benefit to those in unrelated industries cannot justify the damage done to our collective resources.

If no one owns water then we all own water. But I'd argue the economic benefits of dairying are comparable to the economic benefits I might enjoy from having our water in a Chinese supermarket.

I could argue exporting pure New Zealand water indirectly benefits our tourism industry and the clean-and-green brand, or at least achieves for me 1/600,000th of dairying's economic benefit.

It's in water exporters' interests to maintain our pure image - nobody's buying premium water from a poisoned swamp.

In comparing the two industries perhaps we're scared to face a few awkward home truths. All of us know dairy farmers. Our friends and family are dairy farmers. They represent values that we associate with good old-fashioned Kiwi graft. None of us want to see them negatively affected or exposed.

But we cannot ignore blunt facts.

Although farmers are making responsible efforts to reduce their environmental impact, the efforts aren't anywhere near sufficient to offset dairying's collective damage. We already have too many cows, and massive planned irrigation schemes will only lead to greater farming intensification.

If it's time to charge foreign exporters for tapping our water, then it's time to charge everyone.

If we continue to ruin our land and waterways as the OECD report describes, it'll take generations to restore the damage. And for what? A period of sustained, moderate economic growth.