Water Storage critical to New Zealand's big future

Monday 9 May 2011, 2:04PM
By Federated Farmers of New Zealand

Conor English, Chief Executive Officer Federated Farmers

New Zealand is big. Our land mass is 67 percent the size of Germany’s, 72 percent of Japans and bigger than the United Kingdom. Our coast is longer than mainland USA and our economic zone around two thirds the size of Australia. Critically our skies give us abundant fresh water, our land fertile soils, and our total exclusive economic zone significant mineral resource. So while some consider Australia to be lucky, so are we.

But the economic reality is that we are hanging onto the cliff face of first world status by our finger tips. If we are to climb that cliff face as a country, we need to face the fact that we must produce stuff and ideas to sell to the world to pay some bills and maintain our standard of living. We must better utilize and harvest our resources and we need to invest in and leverage productive assets, people and ideas.

Yes we do need to build on our core strength, agriculture. When we look at the diamond that is New Zealand, it is agriculture that sparkles brightest. But we can’t remain a one trick pony. We need more big intellectual companies based here in New Zealand, we need investment in broadband - rural broadband in particular, and we need to carefully harvest our significant mineral resources. And critically we need more water storage.

Farmers are the custodians of our land and water resources, which they harvest for the benefit of their families, community and country, and nurture for future generations. Waters allocation, management, quality and storage are all in play right now. Indeed the decisions that are made in the next couple of years will be felt for the next half century. If we get that wrong, our success as a nation, will be constrained. If we get the balances right, then our ability to harvest and benefit from one of our critical comparative advantages will be enhanced. There are some complex decisions to make.

Water quality, which is a critical factor in the urban / rural relationship, needs smart solutions, based on objective science informing practical, economic solutions, not political rhetoric. Significant money and effort is now going into this by our agricultural sector.

Water storage will enable “more fish and less drought” and build resilience into our economy and environment. In the city you don’t have to wait for the rain to fall before you have a cup of tea. In the city, we have access to water at the right place at the right time. In the city we store water, we bank it, we save it on a rainy day so we can use it when it isn’t raining. So why not do more of the same in the country?

It’s not that New Zealand is running out of water, it’s that water is running out of New Zealand.

The Greeks, Romans and Egyptians built their civilisations on water. We know from the Opua dam that the environment, recreational values, the economy and community spirit are all enhanced by using smart water storage strategies. I’ve yet to meet a fish that doesn’t like water 365 days a year.

Government studies of that project tell us that every 1000ha irrigated creates 27 jobs and injects $7.7 million into the local economy. With 30 potential projects covering around 1 million Ha up the eastern seaboard that’s about $7.5 billion extra revenue for the country each year, and 27,000 new jobs. Over a decade that’s $75 billion extra cash for the country, if all potential projects came to 100% fruition, which is unlikely however.

New Zealand’s recession was kicked off by the 2008 drought, not the Global Financial Crisis. MAF estimated that it cost about $2.8 billion. To put into context, the Rugby World Cup, which will be great, is expected to have something like a billion dollar benefit, so the 2008 drought cost the equlivent of the benefit from 3 RWCs.

Whatever your views on global warming, if you think it is going to get hotter it’s not a bad idea to store some water! This is particularly the case if 65% of your export dollars are from the primary sector. Those countries who have water storage infrastructure who will navigate though potential practical challenges the best.

So if we want to set our nation up for success for the next half century, and to improve our economic and environmental resilience, then all involved - including the government - need to get focussed on achieving smart water storage strategies. I hope they are up for it.