Maori Water Rights up for Debate
“Unlike many countries,” The Economist reports, “New Zealand is blessed with abundant fresh water. Its temperate climate, regular rainfall over much of the country, and thousands of lakes and rivers ensure a good supply. But who owns these larger bodies of water? The government’s answer is, no one: not the state, nor any group or individual. But some of those who have lived in New Zealand longest, the Maori, disagree.”
The Maori, says The Economist, “claim a special relationship with New Zealand’s fresh water, based on their historical use of its rivers for drinking water, spiritual beliefs, fishing and shellfish harvest, transport and trade, among other things. Their case goes back to 1840, when the British Crown and most of the Maori tribes signed the Waitangi treaty, which first formalised the colonists’ settling of the islands. Maori rights were enshrined in the treaty.”
Prime Minister John Key says that “full ownership” will not be ceded. He hopes the freshwater issue can be settled—through political negotiation, not in the courts—in the coming year. The ruling National Party leads a minority government which relies on the Maori Party for occasional support.
Federated Farmers “argues that all available water has already been allocated and that specifying a share for the Maori would mean others losing out. New Zealand’s farms rely heavily on water—especially in the dairy sector, which is now the country’s biggest export earner, worth $10 billion a year.
“Growing Chinese demand for milk powder means farmers are increasingly switching from meat production to dairy, thereby increasing their water use. Dairy farming is also polluting freshwater supplies, as phosphates and nitrates seep into groundwater. This has become a political issue, not just for the Maori: many of the rivers and lakes loved by all Kiwis are no longer safe to swim in. The most likely outcome is a fudge that avoids saying anyone owns New Zealand’s fresh water. But the Maori may get more influence over some water, or even an allocation.”
Originally reported in The Economist, May 9, 2015.