OPINION: This morning as I was drinking a glass of water I looked out over my veggie garden and started thinking about how pivotal water is to life. Like everyone in New Zealand, I require an effective and efficient and above-all safe system to provide fresh drinking water, get rid of wastewater, and deal with stormwater. These three functions have, more recently, complied with the fashion of the day to give things names and have become the Three Waters.

Here in New Zealand, we have a bit of an issue when it comes to water. It is, alas, an issue that applies to so many areas: from health to social welfare, from education to transportation. We’re a very big country (geographically) with a small population.

We’re also a population that, generally speaking, doesn’t like Government overreach by way of either regulation or taxation. We also have the conflicting attitude that we have a right to live as a true first-world country and that services of whatever type should just be provided. Of course without any more of the aforementioned taxation.

We want to be able to intensify dairy farming but would like to pretend that doing so doesn’t kill our rivers. We have, as the saying goes, Champagne tastes with a beer wallet. Sad as I am to say it, we also have a society that, at least in part, feels very threatened by a woman prime minister, and attacked when we’re asked to right some historical wrongs. It’s something of a powderkeg and this Government’s intention to review the way Three Waters is run has struck a match.

The rationale for the Three Waters reform was the contamination that occurred of the Havelock North drinking water supply a few years ago. In that event, a bunch of people got sick after a poorly maintained freshwater system failed to deliver what it was meant to. Would you like some eau de e-coli, madame? A myriad number of reports later and the determination was made that the economics of every individual council (67 of them in all) providing fully compliant water services just wasn’t feasible.

The solution? Centralisation to avoid duplication with a degree of local governance to ensure input was maintained.

It seems like a rational decision and one which could attract fair and balanced debate about pros and cons: About the fact that centralisation often fails to deliver the efficiency needed; About the fact that local knowledge is hugely valuable and drives cost benefits; Of how local councils are cash strapped and could do this work if they were simply funded better.

That would have been the mature approach. Alas, in my district, as in many others, the Three Waters reforms have been used as a chance to further divide people, to further embed some conspiracy theories, and to double down on a racist trope enjoyed by the ignorant and uninformed.

Recently a public demonstration was organised by the Hurunui District Council to oppose the reforms. The protest struck me as both analogous to farmed turkeys protesting about Christmas and also a questionable use of ratepayer funds. Even more questionable was the protestation from the Mayor, who was wearing an inflammatory anti-government tee shirt, that this was some kind of neutral public consultation.. Anyway, I digress.

At the event, we had the council chief executive pull out the old line that the Government was a pack of thieving bastards. He explained to the amassed crowd that the council itself has water in hand – this despite the fact that our water supply at home is very regularly on a boil water notice and that the local village still has no sewage system, instead relying on old-style septic tanks discharging straight into the ground (from where, you guessed it, the local drinking water comes).

One local commented about the co-governance aspects of Three Waters which are designed to redress long-standing omissions that breech Māori right under Te Tiriti. Of course, given the red-necked nature of the event, his comment was of the flavour that “the Māoris are trying to steal water from us”.

Another local got on the microphone and alleged that the Three Waters Reform is all part of Agenda 21, a far-right conspiracy theory that suggests, among other things, that climate change is a United Nations-led hoax to aggressively depopulate the world and that a central cabal led by the Jews is seeking to overthrow all governments and instal a totalitarian regime. Sounds legit.

I was naive and would have expected the mayor of said district to respond to the resident that people were there to discuss a single reform and that over-arching conspiracy theories do nothing to increase informed debate and simply play on fear and ignorance. Alas, she didn’t, and without confirming that Agenda 21 is actually a thing, gently supported the theory. The flip side of local Government, I guess.

All of this got me suitably depressed at the state of things but didn’t do anything to quell my view that what we need is some robust debate, without vested interests or conspiracy theories.

Huge parts of New Zealand still have no reticulated sewage system. Climate change (which, just FYI, isn’t a UN hoax) will make dealing with stormwater a more common and impactful job. And I’d quite like to not have to boil water every time it rains up here.

I can accept people being for or against the Three Waters Reform. But when people start claiming it is another example of a totalitarian and communist regime, I zone out.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He’s a big fan of sparkling water but not so much of e-coli.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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