A pending Court of Appeal decision on plans for a big water-bottling plant raises the question of whether Cabinet will write the end-use of water and plastic into new consenting laws
In the first Covid lockdown, Ngāti Awa nurses and welfare staff didn’t have enough gloves and masks and hand sanitisers. So the New Zealand-based boss of a local water bottling plant sent through an order to head office in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
“I got it flown in from China,” Michael Gleissner says. “It was there within a week. So their nurses, when they were visiting kaumatua, had the right gear.”
That’s the battle for hearts and minds being waged in the valleys and pastures of eastern Bay of Plenty, as the lines are drawn between a small iwi group and one of the world’s richest men. The fight – in the courts, in the political arena, and in the community – is over whether Nongfu Spring chairman Zhong Shanshan’s New Zealand subsidiary should be allowed to build a massive new plastic manufacturing plant for the export of a billion litres of bottled water to China and the Middle East.
Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa is seeking leave to have its opposition heard by the Court of Appeal – but its bigger focus is changing New Zealand public sentiment. It’s not just about how much the aquifer is depleted, elders argue, but about the loss of the mauri (life force) of the water by shipping it across the world.
Should resource consent decisions consider just the impact on the local environment, or also the wider impact of exporting a resource like fresh water? Click here to comment.
“He tāonga te wai – water is an inherited treasure,” said rūnanga chief executive Leonie Simpson. “Once it has been removed from our rohe our wai will never return. As kaitiaki and mana whenua we have a responsibility to act when decisions impact the natural resources within our rohe.
“We are also concerned about the wider allocation of freshwater rights in Aotearoa. Successive governments have failed to address the very real issue of water rights in New Zealand … In a country impacted by severe drought and water shortages it is nothing short of negligent to give this resource away.”
The tea leaves don’t bode well for Ngāti Awa. Its rūnanga has lost every stage of its legal proceedings to stop the big bottling plant. This Friday is the deadline for it to file its last arguments in its bid to appeal December’s High Court decision. The Court of Appeal is expected to take a month or more to decide whether to even hear the case.
The rūnanga and local residents group Sustainable Otakiri have challenged consents issued by Whakatāne District Council and Bay of Plenty Regional Council that give a green light to Creswell NZ Ltd to massively expand its tiny water bottling plant at Otakiri Springs, between Edgecumbe and Kawerau. It wants to manufacture plastic bottles there, then extract 1.1 billion litres of water each year to bottle and export, mostly to China where Creswell’s parent company is headquartered.
That sounds a lot of water – but in fact, hydrologists say it’s a mere drop in the bucket. Even the rūnanga and the other organisations challenging the consents, Ngāti Pikiao and residents group Sustainable Otakiri, don’t seriously argue that extracting that much water would deplete the aquifer. Already, Creswell and two other nearby companies, Antipodes and Oravida, are extracting and bottling water from the same Awaiti Canal aquifer. Local farmers take far, far more, for irrigation.
“The quantities are small, and the effects on the environment are less adverse than many other abstractions of water for other uses. But the concerns for New Zealanders really relate to whether it’s fair that that water should be exported overseas without any financial return to New Zealanders with the use of that water.”
– David Parker, environment minister
Creswell NZ’s plan is for a 6.3ha site located within the Rural Plains Zone of the Whakatāne District Plan. The generally flat site encompasses the existing small Otakiri Springs water bottling plant and a 5.5ha kiwifruit orchard. It is bounded by shelter belts of large mature trees. The plan is to upgrade the existing bottling line from 8,000 bottles of water an hour to 10,000 bottles an hour. Two new high-speed bottling lines will each produce 72,000 bottles an hour.
A new 16,800 square metre, 12.6 metre tall two-storey building will house the new production lines, warehousing for inwards and outwards goods, and an office block with a reception room and staff café. A truck unloading canopy and finished goods container loading area will be located on the southern side of the building. A container laydown area will be located in the south western corner of the site, with containers stacked a maximum of three high. A carpark with 74 car parking spaces is proposed on the eastern side of the building.
Sustainable Otakiri has led the opposition to the bigger manufacturing plant and increasingly to the plastic bottling, expressing concern about the end-use of those bottles (though it is also concerned about the water extraction).
Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa’s primary concern is the water extraction and its end-use (though it too is concerned about the plastic). For Ngāti Awa’s elders, it’s not all about the court case. Whatever the court’s decision, it’s equally important to them to raise the question of the end-use of the water that’s extracted from beneath their rohe, and the plastic bottles manufactured there, in the hope the Government and select committee may bow to public pressure.
And certainly, they’ve forced it onto the public agenda. The plans for the Otakiri Springs bottling plant have made it onto the front page of the Sunday Star-Times, and into Ministerial Question Time.
“Concerns about exported water in bottles, which is amongst the most pristine water in our country, don’t really relate to environmental effects,” Environment Minister David Parker told Parliament last year. “The quantities are small, and the effects on the environment are less adverse than many other abstractions of water for other uses. But the concerns for New Zealanders really relate to whether it’s fair that that water should be exported overseas without any financial return to New Zealanders with the use of that water.
“I explained to the committee that there are pros and cons in proceeding with a levy on bottled water without looking at wider issues relating to water, including whether you might create problems in the Crown-Māori relationship dealing with that particular aspect of water allocation in advance of others.”
For Ngāti Awa, the timing of their court challenge is good: David Parker confirmed last month that the Government would replace the big, old, unpopular and unwieldy Resource Management Act with three new laws: the Natural and Built Environments Act to provide for land use and environmental regulation; the Strategic Planning Act to integrate with other legislation relevant to development; and the Climate Change Adaptation Act.
The Government has campaigned for election on its opposition to promoting New Zealand as a water extraction and bottling destination. NZ Trade and Enterprise had been promoting the country offshore as a place to extract and export bottled water, until Labour came into power in 2017 and put a stop to it.
“We’ve become a bit of a political football – the iwi interests around freshwater are vexed. It’s a complicated issue. We’ve always acknowledged and appreciated Ngati Awa’s kaitiaki over the aquifer and their role in exercising that.”
– Michael Gleissner, Creswell NZ
Under NZ First’s support agreement, that Government committed to introduce a royalty on exports of bottled water – but that never happened. It proved too complicated. Instead, they are changing the Overseas Investment Act to make a planned bottling enterprise’s impact on water quality and sustainability an explicit consideration in deciding whether to approve the sale of land to overseas interests.
That doesn’t affect Creswell: they already have their Overseas Investment approval, conditional on them providing the 50-plus local jobs they’ve promised. The land where they draw their water is owned by farmers Jim and Donald Robertson, brothers who set up Otakiri Springs and have been licensed to extract and sell the water there since the 1980s.
Should bottling companies pay royalties on the water they take?
Michael Gleissner smiles, as he issues a polite warning to the government. The Creswell NZ chief executive says the company is happy to pay a “fair” royalty on the water it uses – but that means applying it consistently. He asks, what about agriculture? What about the country’s vineyards and wineries? Is Government prepared to charge them all a royalty for their water use – because they use much, much more than the water bottlers.
He argues the proposed 1.1 billion litre water take is “less than minor” – and to be fair, that’s really not disputed. Moreover, he argues his company is active is working in the community and with local Māori, albeit down at the marae level, not up at the rūnanga level. All nine of their employees at Otakiri Springs are local, he said, and they would put on another 50 local jobs when the new plant was built. Plus, 150 jobs in the 30-month construction project.
“We’ve become a bit of a political football – the iwi interests around freshwater are vexed,” he complains. “It’s a complicated issue. We’ve always acknowledged and appreciated Ngati Awa’s kaitiaki over the aquifer and their role in exercising that.”
Five years ago, kaumatua Hemana Eruera had welcomed Nongfu Spring chairman Zhong Shanshan onto Kōkōhinau Marae. The Chinese mogul is reportedly the wealthiest person in all of Asia. On the marae, there were assurances sought about jobs at the expanded plant, but Gleissner said there had been no concerns raised about taking the water.
Eruera subsequently gave evidence for the company in the consenting process, and that proved critical. The Environment Court found that local Māori had diffferent positions on their kaitiaki role over the water of the aquifer and, on balance, the Court preferred the Kōkōhinau Marae elder’s evidence to the array of cultural expertise lined up by Te Rūnanga o Ntāti Awa.
“He was speaking on behalf of his people,” said Gleissner. “We’ve never paid anyone.
“One thing that Hemana and a number of iwi leaders told us is, you’ve also got to look after the mauri of the people. This is a region that is quite economically deprived, and I’ve been going there for five years. It’s getting worse and worse and worse. During the Edgecumbe flood we provided all the support and water free. Otakiri Springs has provided that to iwi through many many local events. That’s what we do. That’s what we do in China, that’s what we do everywhere, that’s what we do as a good corporate citizen.”
Creswell just wants to settle the dispute, so they can start building their new plant. They have told the runanga they’ll drop any claim for their legal costs, if Ngāti Awa will just settle the long-running legal battle. They might even contribute to runanga’s legal costs, Gleissner says, if they can some to a settlement
Already, it’s been so delayed that it won’t begin operating before 2027, at earlier. That’s two years after New Zealand and China implement bans on single-use plastics – which surely undermines the very viability of the plant?
Gleissner hedges. He asks, are RPET water bottles really single-use? He professes to not know the answer, and says that’s yet to be decided by either the Chinese of New Zealand government.
Certainly it’s true that the Government hasn’t made a decision on whether the end-use of water should be a consideration in deciding resource consents, under its new law. It’s certainly not ruling it out, though.
“Allocation of resources including water is a significant theme in the reform of the resource management system,” David Parker said. “This is a complex issue and decisions are yet to be taken as to what changes should be made.
“Currently when a council considers whether to grant a resource consent to take water, the end-use of the extracted water is not relevant. The focus of the Resource Management Act is on the adverse environmental effects of the taking of the water not the end use. No decision has been made as to whether the end-use of water should be a factor in the decision to grant a resource consent under the resource management reforms. These policies are still being worked through.”
So the questions that comes up time and time again, whether discussing underwater aquifers, rivers or the foreshore and seabed, is this: Who owns the water? And, when it’s framed that way, it’s a question we may never satisfactorily answer.
“Whether you say everyone owns the water or no-one owns the water doesn’t take you very far,” Parker argued. “Some people have rights and interests in water including Māori and those with existing time-limited allowances.”
Why Asia’s richest man owns a Whakatāne water allowance
Chinese billionaire Zhong Shanshan is the richest person in Asia, with an estimated US$84.7 billion net worth (NZ$118b), according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index. That makes him the seventh-richest person in the world, right after Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and legendary investor Warren Buffett.
The 66-year-old billionaire, who chairs both bottled water company Nongfu Spring and vaccine maker Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise, made more than US$70b (nearly NZ$100b) in 2020, reports Business Insider. Most of his wealth comes from the bottling enterprise, of which he owns an 84% stake.
The former journalist’s lifestyle appears to be much more low-key than that of Asia’s previous richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who’s known for living in a reported $1 billion home and mingling with Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton. Zhong, by comparison, is known as the “Lone Wolf”. He lives in an apartment in Hangzhou’s Xihu district, which borders the city’s scenic West Lake. He rarely makes public appearances.
So the fact that he visited Otakiri Springs, and was welcomed onto Kōkōhinau Marae by kaumatua Hemana Eruera, is all the more extraordinary. What does New Zealand have that he can’t get from his 18-plus water bottling plants in China?
The answer, of course, is it’s pristine brand. That’s explicit in the Whakatāne District Council’s 2018 resource consent approval: “They now wish to utilise Otakiri Springs’ existing brand and access to high quality water, combining this with the company’s manufacturing and distribution capability, to grow Creswell into a significant water bottling and distribution business, supplying the New Zealand and international markets, including but not limited to China.”
(Here’s an interesting piece of trivia: where does the name “Creswell” come from? “The chairman asked me for a name for the investment vehicle we use,” Gleissner laughs. “Silly story, but I was in China and I looked at potential names, to find something that Chinese could pronounce. ‘Cresswell’ was the name of a boat that brought a lot of immigrants to New Zealand from the UK and Scotland, and I just liked the idea that they brought a lot of people here to improve their lives and give them a new shot.”)
“During Chairman Zhong’s visit he seemed moved by the culture of the marae and by the spirit of Te Atua Rongo that was present in the wharenui. Chairman Zhong spoke freely from his heart about the project and how he wished to support the people of Ngāti Awa and the Te Teko community into employment.”
– Hemana Eruera, Kōkōhinau Marae
According to Gleissner, the people of the marae didn’t raise any concerns with him about the water extraction or plastic bottling; they only sought assurances – that he willingly gave – that all the jobs would go to locals, not to imported Chinese engineers. “It was about jobs and then, of course, there’s always a degree of suspicion about Chinese – what are you doing here, why are you coming here?”
According to Leonie Simpson, it’s no surprise that they didn’t asked questions about the expanded water extraction and plastic bottle manufacturing. Those plans weren’t announced till a few months later.
Certainly, Eruera knew about the project when he invited Zhong to visit the marae on December 19, 2016. He also arranged for Zhong to visit other local sites in the Otakiri, Te Teko and Whakatāne areas, including the Tūwharetoa Hahuru marae at Kawerau and Te Tohu o te Ora o Ngāti Awa.
What is in dispute is just how much the people of the marae were told about the project and its scale; the first resource consent applications weren’t lodged until seven months later on July 31, 2017.
What is clear is that Zhong and his New Zealand subsidiary (Creswell NZ Ltd was established just two months before the meeting on the marae) have relied heavily on the support and evidence of Kōkōhinau Marae elder Hemana Eruera Manuera, MNZM. The crux of the Environment Court decision was its finding that it preferred Eruera’s evidence on the cultural effects of drawing more water from the Awaiti aquifer and Otakiri Springs to that of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa. The High Court, in turn, said that finding was a matter of fact, not a point of law, and so it could not review that.
A PR consultant for Creswell NZ declined to front up Eruera for an interview. “Michael has been very sensitive about exposing Hemana to further trouble locally, given the reactions from some in the community to his support for the project,” the consultant said.
But in his brief of evidence to the Environment Court, he gives a pepeha that traces back to the waka Mataatua, the maunga Pūtauaki, the awa Rangitaiki, the iwi Ngāti Awa, the hapū Pahipoto, the marae Kōkōhinau, and Te Teko te taone kei Te Pito o Te Ao – Te Teko the township at the centre of the universe.
Neither Simpson nor it seems anyone else disputes Eruera’s authority to speak on his own behalf. What they dispute is whether Eruera, the youngest of 15 children who learned his tikanga at the feet of his father, the last Ngāti Awa paramount chief Dr Eruera Riini Manuera, speaks on behalf of his marae, his hapū and other Ngāti Awa.
“I am knowledgeable in the tikanga of my hapū, Te Pahipoto, and of Ngāti Awa, and I am able to speak with authority in these matters,” he told the Court. “While I do not believe that the Pākehā term “expert” fully captures the Māori concept of holding a special knowledge, my hapū has nominated me to represent it on the Te Kāhui Kaumātua o Ngāti Awa rōpū in relation to matters of tikanga and the protection of mauri.”
Eruera said he was captured from the outset by the “genuineness and transparency” demonstrated by Nongfu’s chairman, Zhong. “Having kōrero with the Chairman about how the Project would create employment opportunities for our local people created true goodwill.
“Te Rūnanga has indicated concerns that the Project will have negative effects on the mauri of water, however I do not share these concerns. In the unlikely event that any negative effects on the environment arise, there are ways in which mauri can be restored and we as kaitiaki can address those effects,” he added.
“Bottling water and selling it overseas would not make a difference to the mauri of the water. It does not matter where the water is going because either way, the water will ultimately end up being returned to Papatūānuku.”
Eruera told the Court that the rūnanga had spoken much about kaitiakitanga, but that responsibility was held by his hapū. “The positive effects of the project are abundant,” he said. “Through the project, we will be able to take care of and enhance te mauri o te wai and protect and honour our kaitiaki role, while at the same time seeing the significant benefits the Project will have for our community.
“During Chairman Zhong’s visit he seemed moved by the culture of the marae and by the spirit of Te Atua Rongo that was present in the wharenui. Chairman Zhong spoke freely from his heart about the project and how he wished to support the people of Ngāti Awa and the Te Teko community into employment.
“His genuineness and transparency captured me and it was clear that relationships between Creswell, Nongfu and tangata whenua were already beginning. The greatest dream of our elders is for the future of our children and grandchildren, especially in terms of employment and housing, so having that kōrero with the Chairman about how the Project would create employment opportunities for our local people created true goodwill, whakaaronui.”
Water is for everyone
It’s not just Eruera who grew up immersed in Ngāti Awa customs and practices. Leonie Simpson was also raised in the rohe and in the tikanga. She too grew up nearby. “Of course I did.”
“There’s pristine water, ancient springs that are well-known within our iwi, throughout our rohe,” says the Ngāti Awa chief executive. “But we are a raupatu iwi – we suffered confiscation. So we were moved off our lands.
“Some of these natural tāonga are no longer within Ngāti Awa hands. They are within private ownership, and this is an example.”
Are there any of the Otakiri Springs that are within Ngāti Awa hands? “No.”
Were you as a child able to drink those waters? “No.”
Or able to… “No. No, no, no.”
She says the municipal water supplies of Kawerau and Whakatāne are among the worst in the country. Yet the only way the people of Ngati Awa can access the pristine mineral waters of Otakiri Springs is by buying it off those with licences. In glass and plastic bottles. “Springs like that have a special mauri because they are ancient, and they appear naturally. And they weren’t just used for sustaining life in terms of the living. They were used for special ceremonies for babies, to celebrate life, to wash deceased bodies.
“There were special places that these things were done. Places where people got blessed before they went to do something spectacular. I don’t know how to explain that in an interview! But they’re more than just natural fixtures.”
She says Ngāti Awa has had widespread support for its opposition to the bottling plant and increased water take.
“We got messages from across Aotearoa. We got people outside the High Court at Rotorua who just felt compelled to turn up. There were Pākehā people, other Māori people. These kinds of takes aren’t just happening here. It’s not just this company.
“We’ve just had droughts up north in Aotearoa. We have security of supply issues. So absolutely, everybody who is in Aotearoa is affected. And that’s the first principle in the Mataatua Declaration on Water: Every person needs water to live and prosper.
“It’s not about who owns it, it’s not about a property right. It’s about everybody in Aotearoa having access to good clean water. It gives us life.”