Thursday, April 25, 2024

The transformative power of water

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Ben Anderson says large-scale water storage could be an idea whose time has come.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In this series, the lads discuss levers.  
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There is a book title out there called Too Much and Never Enough. Here in Hawke’s Bay that seems to neatly summarise our relationship with water. 

Now I know that we in Hawke’s Bay do not hold a monopoly on droughts and cyclones, but in recent years it seems we have lurched from persistent dry to incessant wet, with little in between. 

The scars from Cyclone Gabrielle are the freshest in our memory, but it is the cumulative droughts that affect more of us more often.

The theme of this series of articles is “levers”. My take on the theme is what levers can we as a sector pull that will have the greatest benefit to our economy and our environment? 

As a farmer in Hawke’s Bay, I would struggle to think of a lever more powerful than that of sufficient and reliable water. 

You see, water is transformative. Any producer of food knows that reliable production requires reliable water, but it is the wider benefits to the region that sometimes get missed in the conversation. 

Hawke’s Bay has significant areas of land that could be put to a far better use, if there was reliable access to water. Returns per hectare from unirrigated drystock land are paltry in comparison to those derived from irrigated horticulture and high value crops. 

Certainly the benefits of water are there for the landowner, but it is what happens to this food beyond the farm or orchard gate that is the real story.  

Supported by the correct policies and incentives, and with a steady flow of water and produce, it is reasonable to think that districts like Central Hawke’s Bay could become a new hub of food processing and manufacture, creating jobs and demanding services that would boost the entire district.  

Productivity is often thought of as tonnage on the ship, but true economic productivity is the amount of value that is created from each unit of input. Water is fundamental to the creation of this additional value.

Aside from basic economics, there are other important reasons for large-scale water storage. Dams provide a buffering effect during weather events by absorbing excess water during floods and preventing areas downstream from being inundated. 

By regulating a river’s flow, dams help protect the communities, infrastructure and ecosystems below them. Cyclone Gabrielle is an obvious example of the damage that flooding can cause if left unmitigated. Dams aren’t a silver bullet, but they do help.

Climate change is another key driver for water storage, particularly in those areas already prone to drought. There is no question our climate is changing. There is also no benefit in ignoring the fact or thinking that the best form of adaptation is doing nothing. 

Even with efficient water management practices, Hawke’s Bay will increasingly struggle to match demand with supply, both in town and in the country, without the construction of new water storage infrastructure.  

The reality is that we need to store more water even just to maintain our current level of consumption. Kicking the water-storage can down the road is no longer an option.

Naturally, no solutions are ever as simple as they seem, and there are certainly questions to be answered when arguing the case for water storage. Who will pay for it? Will the water be cheap enough to buy for those that wish to use it? Will the community truly benefit from the water, or will it just make a small group of landholders wealthier? 

These are legitimate concerns, but they are within our ability to effectively address through smart design and policy. We as a country have built large dams before and we know enough to ensure that our efforts are equitable to those in the wider community who will ultimately share in the cost. 

As a hill country farmer, I am fully aware that I won’t be able to use any of the water that may come from our region’s potential water security initiatives. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t support them. 

There is an old saying that a rising tide floats all boats. I’m not sure that this is entirely true, but I fully believe that we as nation must start building large-scale water storage in those regions that would most benefit from it. 

The cost of inaction is too great, and the potential benefits are too significant to try to stand in the way. 

It’s pleasing to see that our new prime minister has come out in full support of water-storage infrastructure. Politics has always been the major stumbling block to date. Perhaps it’s an idea whose time has finally come. 

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