The Maori 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. An interim ruling by the Waitangi tribunal, set up in 1975 to deal with Maori grievances about land and related issues, says that the Maori have freshwater rights “for which full ownership was the closest cultural equivalent in 1840.”
Although the government has been willing to discuss water rights with some Maori groups, John Key, the prime minister, says that “full ownership” will not be ceded. In 2012 the government sought to part-privatise Mighty River Power, an electricity company with dams on the longest river, the Waikato, which has particular spiritual value for the Tainui tribe. The Maori Council, with representatives from each Maori district, tried to have the sale stopped or postponed. But in 2013 the high court ruled in the government’s favour….
One proposal is that the Maori get a specified water allocation from regional councils, just as farms do. But Federated Farmers, a lobby group, 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.
Excerpts from Maori rights in New Zealand Water, water everywhere, Economist, May 9, 2015 at 34.