Volume 32

Exporting Nature’s Gift: An Analysis of Contemporary Water Law Issues in Aotearoa New Zealand

by Isabelle Smith

Fresh water is an essential natural resource. The sustainable use, restoration, and conservation of freshwater resources is vital to meet the needs of current generations, while conserving this resource for future generations. However, the management of freshwater resources poses many complex challenges. In Aotearoa New Zealand, freshwater management has become an issue of increasing public concern because of complex issues arising from the competing needs of New Zealand’s main water users and international commercial interests. The exploitation of freshwater resources in New Zealand is occurring in two prominent ways: the direct and indirect exportation of water. These exports have contributed to the depletion of New Zealand’s freshwater resources for economic gain, to the detriment of social, cultural, and environmental values. New Zealand’s “first-in, first-served” and multi-faceted management approach to water allocation fails to address these issues and fails to adequately prepare freshwater users for future climate realities.

In the context of global water scarcity, climate change, and New Zealand’s own environmental values, a more efficient and sustainable approach to managing freshwater resources is required. This may be achieved by regulating virtual water flows and bottled water exports, using a freshwater pricing mechanism targeted at commercial users, and banning future permits allowing the bottling of New Zealand freshwater for exportation. These policy solutions would allow New Zealand to achieve a more integrated system of water management that internalizes the negative environmental costs of freshwater exports. An alternative approach may be found in the expansion of legal personhood for freshwater resources, an approach which would legally recognize the inherent value of freshwater resources, but which requires further exploration. This Article also acknowledges the need to address Māori rights and interests in freshwater and the political barriers to implementing changes to the status quo of freshwater management. Nonetheless, by engaging with the momentum to address the challenges facing freshwater management, whether by crafting better, targeted policy, or by considering alternative approaches, such as expanded environmental rights, fresh water can shift from a degraded resource to one that is valued and sustainably conserved. In doing so, New Zealand may not only reduce its global water footprint and improve domestic access to water but may also
implement solutions to serve as a model for other countries confronting similar
freshwater inefficiencies.

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