One of the last assignments for my MBA in the early 90s concerned water.
Our class was given the task of investigating and developing a business case for selling New Zealand water offshore. Looking back it was an interesting exercise.
We chose Milford Sound as the ideal location to source the water, believing it to be an endless supply.
We were all allocated a piece of work to undertake to include in the business case. I remember I picked up communication and community engagement. My classmates used to rib me "you like people". They all came from the corporate world and didn't have time for anything resembling community engagement. They thought it was a big, fat waste of time, and an unnecessary hindrance imposed on the business community.
Someone rang Foreign Affairs to find out which country would be most likely to pay a premium for New Zealand water. We discounted China and settled on an Arab country.
Exporting in plastic bottles wasn't even considered. We went for exporting the water in tankers. Shipping vessels in and out of the sounds.
I thought the financials would be the stumbling block but one of the class relished the task and spent a lot of time fixating on figures, exchange and interest rates and the return on investment. He reassured us exporting water was a viable business.
I recall we paid scant regard to impacts on the Sounds themselves and to any iwi and cultural considerations. Who owned the water was never in doubt. And obviously, it would be for sale.
The end result was selling New Zealand water would be a very profitable, sustainable business. We had the business case to prove it.
My concern at the time, and still is, selling the idea to New Zealanders.
Our business case earned us high praise from the overseas business consultant/lecturer who evaluated it. I thought we were in "la-la land". What a ridiculous idea – exporting water from New Zealand.
It appears if you wait long enough there is a time for everything. Exporting water in plastic bottles is now the new gold.
But it's causing concern as the reaction this week to the granting of an application to buy land to expand the existing Otakiri Springs water bottling plant, near Whakatāne, has shown.
Cresswell NZ Ltd owned by Chinese water bottling giant Nongfu Spring made the application.
Minister for Land Information Eugene Sage and Associate Finance Minister David Clark granted the application under the Overseas Investments Act 2005. This means one billion litres of freshwater annually can being bottled and exported to China.
Sage is a Greens MP and has come under fire from party members for granting the application.
Independent commissioners considered the resource consent applications and gave it the thumbs up too. One of the concerns raised by submitters who objected to the application is the danger that the aquifer could potentially damage the surrounding waterways. They say not enough is known of potential impacts likely to occur some way down the track on this sensitive piece of land at Otakiri.
Commissioners are quite constrained as to what they can and can't take into consideration when considering an application. They have no say on whether a royalty should be paid or where the water can be exported to. The RMA guides their decision making.
Some local iwi are not happy. They totally oppose taking any freshwater, to sell, as they believe it has important cultural significance. Yet other iwi see the positive effects of 60 jobs being created.
There are iwi I know from around the country who are currently preparing resource consent applications to extract water from springs on their land. They see the commercial benefits from bottling and selling water just as Cresswell Ltd does at Otakiri.
Sad to say we are way past "la-la land" now.