Opinion: Three Waters is history. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although National’s campaign promises were light on details, they were clear on intent: “Within 100 days of a National Government, it’s gone,” National’s spokesperson for local government Simon Watts said in August.
Given this promise, National will be rallying to come up with an alternative urban water management model. The political realities mean any model will need to fly with councils and with future coalition partners.
National also needs to be thinking about water management structures and policies that can deliver outcomes for communities that are efficient, effective, equitable, and environmentally sustainable over the longer term.
At the moment, it appears to favour a model that takes water assets off council books and transfers them to independent organisations focused on managing and delivering drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater services.
Wellington Water is being held up as an example of how the new water structures could work. Auckland’s Watercare is another. In both cases, the organisations remain council-owned and funded, but infrastructure management and delivery of services are outsourced to the independent entities.
Building robust data infrastructure that can support research, validate models, estimate trends, and monitor changes in urban water use over time is essential if Aotearoa New Zealand is going to fix its urban water problems
Less attention has been given to the data and evidence being drawn on to justify a shift from the status quo, or to analyse the type of policy tools that could deliver improved wellbeing outcomes for communities, independent of deep structural change.
Our new research supports the hypothesis that patterns of urban water production and consumption in Aotearoa New Zealand are not well understood. Management approaches vary regionally, and little is known about the marginal net benefits of the various organisational structures or policy approaches.
It is also extremely difficult to get residential water consumption data through public channels.
Our recent efforts using the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act produced urban water data that was spotty and inconsistent both across and within the 67 local councils.
Even data sourced from the Department of Internal Affairs – data it collected as part of the Three Waters reforms – only went back two years and was aggregated for each year.
For researchers and policymakers, this makes it nearly impossible to evaluate the impacts of policy change over time, to compare the merits and limitations of various policy approaches, or to estimate the future costs and benefits of reform. In turn, this raises questions about how evidence is being used to inform the design of urban water policy, as well as issues of public accountability.
As the incoming government draws up the next blueprint for urban water management reform, there needs to be more transparency concerning the use of data and evidence. This will help ensure proposed changes deliver benefits for communities and meet the policy objectives of improved drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater service delivery.
There also need to be new rules built into any reform legislation to require the collection of consistent data on drinking water production and consumption. Water quality isn’t the only thing a future coalition should be concerned with – supply availability is critical too as urbanisation, climate change, and ageing infrastructure place increasing pressure on water resources.
Regardless of who is in the Beehive, building robust data infrastructure that can support research, validate models, estimate trends, and monitor changes in urban water use over time is essential if Aotearoa New Zealand is going to fix its urban water problems.
Thomas Benison, research analyst at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, contributed to the research referred to in this article. The research was funded by the Aotearoa Foundation.