Trust vital in water management

Conflict over water exists within New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images
Conflict over water exists within New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images
The recent fire near Middlemarch  is a reminder New Zealand is not immune to water-related vulnerabilities, writes Adan E. Suazo.

As the dust of the recent local government election settles, and those elected begin to take their seats in their respective halls, they must understand the scope of the challenges before them.

By challenges I don't only mean the policies that will require deliberation, and the representative weight of their office. By challenges I mean something that has been a growing concern of mine throughout my doctoral research: individuals and groups across New Zealand seem to be exhibiting a slow-paced, yet undeniable loss of trust in their local councils.

One manifestation of this can be seen in how water is governed, and how communities respond in the face of water policies.

This became evident to me as I delved deeper into the study of water-based disputes in New Zealand. When we think of water-based conflicts, we normally imagine groups engaging in violent actions to seize water resources that are becoming progressively scarce.

What we imagine is indeed a reality elsewhere, where the impacts of human-driven resource exploitation, urbanisation patterns and climatic uncertainty, to name a few factors, trigger scarcities that push individuals and groups to become increasingly competitive, and more likely to engage in violence over freshwater.

This is not New Zealand's reality, at least not fully: while violence over water remains non-existent within New Zealand's borders, conflicts over water are by no means absent.

My research at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies suggests that water-based conflict intentionality within groups in New Zealand is likely to intensify when public trust in decision-making processes erodes.

This helps explain the ongoing mobilisations against water bottling companies in Canterbury: not only are these activities incompatible with the values and interests of a significant portion of the public, they are also deliberated upon and approved through doubt-inspiring decision-making processes that leave little credible space for communities to provide sufficient input.

This erosion of trust also helps explain why some communities mobilise against the most unseeming enterprises, including water treatment.

Why is this important? Because councils in New Zealand are the implementers of central government policies, regulations and overall guidelines over how natural resources are accessed and used: all of them central elements of life in New Zealand.

If councils are unsuccessful in maintaining the public's trust, it is unlikely they will receive the necessary social licence to help implement national strategies over the most urgent issues, not least of which is the effects of climatic uncertainty. New Zealand is not immune to water-related vulnerabilities, and the recent call to conserve water after the Middlemarch fire is a reminder of that. In approaching issues such as water management and climate change, among others, there cannot be tears in the fabric of society. Establishing a united and benign approach to these and other issues starts with the reconstitution of trust in the State apparatus.

This task requires a sound relationship-building strategy by councils, to help identify key stakeholders and local leaders within their districts.

Some councils are already starting important efforts to solidify their standing with communities: I was glad to be part of a meeting involving the Otago Regional Council's (ORC) executive and a local water management group in Ranfurly in September, where frank discussions over community water management took place, and where a seed for better community-council relations was sown.

Naturally, more work needs to occur, but this is a good example of how trust-building can be initiated and potentially reinforced.

The intensification of water disputes should not be normalised in one of the world's most water-abundant countries.

In the interest of maintaining the resolution of such disputes within the channels available through councils, an acknowledgement needs to happen, where public trust is formally regarded as the central component in determining whether the public engages in disruptive or collaborative actions to seek the change they feel they deserve.

-Adan E. Suazo is a doctoral researcher at the University of Otago's National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

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