An exceedingly pluvial country....

Sir Geoffrey Palmer once sympathised with flood victims by noting the rainy nature of New Zealand's climate. As weather patterns change and water becomes a political issue, we might yearn for a bit more pluvialism

Meridian Energy will be celebrating, having finally secured water rights to construct a new generation system in the Waimate. Yet as the corks are popping in its uber-sustainable new Wellington waterfront headquarters, a few blocks away some new ministers could be forgiven if worry beads are appearing on their foreheads. Because if there’s an issue which could be to this new National-led government what genetic modification and the foreshore and seabed were to the previous Labour-led administration, it’s water.

Water is one of nature’s most precious natural resources. It is essential for life. It is an integral part of the ecosystem. It is essential for business. It enables cities and towns to work. It generates power. Without it, crops and animals die. As do we.

Where it is in abundance, it is essentially a free resource, despite its immense value. Where its supply is more limited, its value becomes reflected in the price consumers will pay for access to it and usage of it.

A country like Australia, where water resources are limited, has a long history of adapting to the demands that scarcity places on the wider community. In most parts of New Zealand, where water is plentiful, or has been, there is limited awareness of the importance of securing adequate supply.

That is slowly changing. As officials have been warning ministers for some years, changing climatic patterns means New Zealand is on the cusp of a sustained period of constrained supply for water at a time of increasing demand. The long-range predictions for New Zealand are that the country, as a whole, will become drier.

And we’ve just seen the economic impact of water shortages. The initial part of the recession we’re now experiencing was due, in no small part, to last summer’s drought in the Waikato, and the subsequent decline in dairy output. This summer, it could be the East coast's turn to suffer.

In the context of a growing population and economy, any less water than we have now is a recipe for conflict, especially when coupled with the attractive economics of converting sheep, beef, and crop farms to dairying. Added to that is the push to develop new renewable energy generation, of which water can provide a significant component, and the problem heightens further.

Business is now cottoning on to the issue. Central and regional government and some industries are grappling with the water issue, particularly in Canterbury, which is one of the dryer parts of the country. Maori too are expressing their interest in staking out their customary rights.

The public, by and large, have yet to notice it as an issue. Notice it they will as soon as the current settings are disturbed. As far as the public is concerned, they own it. They can drink it, swim in it, fish in it (if it's not too polluted). We remain, at the moment, a pluvial enough country for that to happen unmolested.

It won’t be long, however, before the public too cottons on to there being a real battle around water – a battle over who owns it, who controls it, who has access to it, how to secure access to sufficient quantities of it, and, if it is to be priced, how to ensure its price is at a sustainable level.

The politics of this issue are complex, especially for whoever is in government at the time it becomes a salient issue. Public servants are already drafting strategies.

Ministers will face the interests of business and farmers who currently enjoy plenty of cheap water and will want to ensure their ‘rights’ to water remain undisturbed. Then there are those competing businesses and farms which don’t have but want a share. They will begin to pressure for allocation models that allow everyone a chance to secure water.

Free marketers and Act will want a price placed on water, and a tradeable rights system. Iwi and the Maori Party will want Maori to have the opportunity to assert customary title. The Greens and the conservation lobby will demand heavy charges placed on industrial users coupled with conservation efforts to reduce overall demand.

Somewhere in the mix will be the general public, who will be aghast at any hint that their own consumption and usage will be somehow constrained by the establishment of the private rights of others.

National is facing the sort of headache Labour endured over the foreshore and seabed. This is one issue that Labour will be happy to slowly get its head around from the comfort of Opposition.