The Government has bowed to public pressure over the export of bottled water and is asking an expert advisory group to look at whether companies could be charged for using it.

That’s a big change from the position taken last week by Environment Minister Nick Smith, who told Parliament there wasn’t going to be any charge imposed.

“We accept there is growing public concern,” Prime Minister Bill English said at his post-cabinet press conference on Monday.

“That’s why we want to refer it to this group to look at what, if any, reasonable options there are.”

A letter is going to the Land and Water Forum’s Technical Advisory Group, which is already dealing with water allocation, asking it to specifically consider the issue.

However, Mr English emphasised how difficult that task was going to be.

“We don’t want to give the public the impression that there’s a simple, easy answer – you will almost certainly find there isn’t,” he said.

“It’s about who gets to charge, who gets the revenue, what the charge might be, and whether you can do that legally without establishing who owns the water – New Zealand’s long-held position is that no one owns it.”

The export of bottled water has become a hot political issue since a petition was presented to parliament last week asking for a moratorium.

Its backers pointed out that companies were taking water from aquifers and springs at no cost and making a profit from it, while in some parts of the country there were water shortages.

As the petition was presented, there were rallies in 19 centres protesting against the export of bottled water.

In response to that, Dr Smith said in parliament the amount of water exported was tiny in comparison to New Zealand’s annual fresh water resource and there wasn’t going to be a charge.

He said charging for it would raise the question of whether others who used it for free, such as soft drink manufacturers and brewers, should also be charged.

But the strength of public opinion is growing in an election year, and opposition parties are backing the concerns that are being raised.

The government has clearly decided it has to do something.

Mr English conceded that Māori rights to water would inevitably enter the discussions about charging for it.

“All I can say is that from our seven years of experience of dealing with water issues, it’s always five times more complicated than you thought and there’s a wide diversity of interests,” he said.

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