Ours - Not Yours: If water belongs to everyone, then immediately two principles become very clear. The first is that water can only ever be owned collectively – and never individually. The second is that whatever the collective entity in which public ownership is vested, be it the state or a local authority, public officials cannot ethically permit collectively owned water to be diverted for private profit without first extracting from the profit-seeker an appropriate fee for its use.
NO ONE OWNS THE WATER. It sounds so reasonable. How could anyone “own” water? It “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”, according to Shakespeare, and is sent to fall “on the just and on the unjust”, if you believe the New Testament. Playing no part in its creation, what plausible claim could we, as human-beings, possibly advance for its ownership?
Well, that all depends on how human-beings organise themselves. A hunter-gatherer society takes its water pretty much as Mother Nature delivers it. From springs and streams and rivers, and directly, from the sky above.
Agricultural and/or pastoral societies, however, tend to take a much more proprietary view of water. Without a reliable water supply crops cannot flourish and herds die of thirst. The human-beings who live in these kinds of societies are not disposed to share “their” springs and streams and rivers with anyone – not without a fight.
And then there are the human-beings who live in cities. Without water, cities simply can’t exist. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the key capability which makes any sort of enduring civilisation possible is the ability to collect, transfer and distribute large quantities of water for the consumption and use of large numbers of human-beings. How would the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt have survived without their sophisticated systems of water storage and irrigation? Where would Rome have been without her aqueducts and cisterns?
Civilised Collectivism: Where would Rome have been without her aqueducts?
In a civilised society, the bald assertion that “no one owns the water” is, therefore, nonsense. Because, in a civilised society, water belongs to everyone.
But, if water belongs to everyone, then immediately two principles become very clear.
The first is that water can only ever be owned collectively – and never individually. (In the simplest terms, you can’t own it – because we own it.) The second principle is that whatever the collective entity in which public ownership is vested, be it the state or a local authority, public officials cannot ethically permit collectively owned water to be diverted for private profit without first extracting from the profit-seeker an appropriate fee for its use.
It is only when we work back from these first principles that the bitter controversy over the use (and misuse) of water which has arisen in New Zealand is explained. They make it all-too-clear why politicians and officials in the thrall of farmers – especially dairy farmers – are so determined to make us believe that: “no one owns the water”.
Like all good agriculturalists and pastoralists, New Zealand’s dairy farmers claim a proprietary interest in the springs, streams, rivers and aquifers which water their crops, preserve their herds and wash out their cowsheds.
Their problem, of course, is that they can’t claim ownership of these water sources openly because New Zealand isn’t ancient Mesopotamia or medieval England. They live in a society in which the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens dwell in towns and cities and where the collective ownership and protection of potable water constitutes the foundation of urban health and comfort.
Bluntly, the springs, streams, rivers and aquifers of New Zealand are not the de facto property of the farming sector, they belong to the whole nation. This is the truth that has, at all costs, to be kept hidden. So long as the whole nation can be hoodwinked into believing that they are not the collective owners of New Zealand’s water; so long as they adhere to the nonsensical notion that “no one owns the water”; so long will the farming sector go on extracting profit from this critical resource without paying a cent for the massive collateral environmental damage they’re causing.
This was the motivation behind the shutting down of Ecan, the Canterbury Regional Council; the reason why democracy has been suspended in that part of New Zealand for more than six years. So reckless had the greed and selfishness of the Canterbury farming community become that they were willing to strip their city-dwelling compatriots of their political rights rather than be denied the massive, publicly-subsidised, irrigation schemes that would make them and their neighbours rich.
When the Prime Minister’s brother, Conor English, shortly after National’s election victory in 2008, vouchsafed to me his prediction that the single biggest issue facing New Zealand for the next twenty years would be “water”, I thought he was joking.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 March 2017.