Dr Liz Gordon: Charging for water


I know that water charging has been normalised in Auckland for years, but it is a big shock to us in Christchurch that our Council has now voted to apply a water charge for ‘excess’ use.  A province that gives a huge amount of water away to corporates, billions of litres, intends to place an excess charge on any household that uses more than 700 litres per day.

They make a big thing of the daily allowance being much more than the average household use and so on.  But there is a significant cost in the policy.  Christchurch installed individual water meters around 30 years ago in the first flush of neo-liberal charging for services, and I understand a lot of these will need to be replaced.  Then there is the cost of reading the meters and the associated bureaucracy.  So they are expecting, presumably, a significant profit to accrue over and above these costs.

The process was a masterclass in a determined bureaucracy getting its own way.  The Council voted down the proposal twice before accepting a moderated version.  In the original policy, the allowance for wealthy households would be much larger than for poor households, because the amount of rates levied on rich properties was much larger. Infuriating.

This did not find favour and, in retrospect, I wonder whether it was put up as a straw man to then get this slightly less offensive version through.

The argument being used by the Mayor and the more lefty (if one can call them that) councillors who voted for it was the Green view that user pays decreases consumption and is therefore better for the environment.

TDB Recommends NewzEngine.com

But what is lost in this kind of formulation is any real notion of the social good.  It is pure economics, with the built in assumption that water is a scarce resource that needs its use curbed. But water is also a human need, and its abundance in areas like ours is surely something to be celebrated, not taxed. The application of that argument in this place is offensive and wrong.

This won’t affect me.  I am not a gardener and do not have a large family to care for.  But it will fall as an uneven burden on people.  One more revenue-gathering scheme that will make our lives worse and impose unnecessary restrictions. And it is a step down the road towards user-pays for all.

I have written twice to the Press about this.  I can’t be bothered with another letter, preferring to air my concerns among the DB community. I have been worn down on this, like all of us.  We seem constantly to be in a war of attrition, fighting policies that make life worse and seeing little improvement.

Can I dedicate this article to the late Penny Bright, of the Water Pressure Group (such a good name!) fame, who I always admired very much.  And her message to those of us not in Auckland was always: this too will come to you.  Well, Penny, they have knocked on the door and they are here.  It is only a matter of time before full charging for this precious resource is in place down here in the sparkling city on the Canterbury Plains.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. Thank you Dr Liz
    I too am an admirer of Penny Bright, her courage and clear sightedness.
    I always remember her tackling John Key over his director status with the American banks.
    She pointed out that he did not mind borrowing from those banks to cover National’s tax-cuts to the wealthy.
    As a banker he profited out of New Zealand’s indebtedness.
    She said it to his face and the smirk vanished.

  2. “Water is essential for life so it should be handed out for free”

    But so is food, clothing, shelter, fuel, transport and a bunch of other things I forget, but we wisely don’t hand them out for free.

    As a dyed in the wool neoliberal I see no reason why water should be free. It costs money to treat it so why shouldn’t the user pay?

    • Water. Air. Don’t they belong to the same category Andrew? It would seem to me that food, clothing, shelter, fuel, transport and a bunch of other things belong to some other category/ies. Oranges are not apples. I can see where you are coming from of course. Nothing escapes pricing. But there would be a few who would contest that view, especially in relation to water and air.

    • So why would a dyed in the wool neoliberal be writing on this blog very odd.

      Who profited from neoliberalism – the rich of course, the rich got richer, the gap widened, very unhealthy for society.

      Read the Spirit Level.

      The water charges were included in our rates, it has been so for years.

      Charging for water disadvantages the poor more than anyone else. This is a total money grab by the council. They know who is using excess water, why don’t they work with these people. They are doing this they said to reduce water consumption, well talk to those who are using excess. Wonder how long we will remain the garden city.

      Why aen’t councils encouraging people to collect the rainwater off their roof, along with solar panels I think this should be compulsory for all new builds just as double glazing is in Otautahi.

      • Michal,
        I post here because I thought you guys were keen on ‘diversity’ 😉

        In the case of Auckland most of the water charge actually covers wastewater treatment. In the last decade we’ve spent billions upgrading sewage transport and treatment and facilities to keep up with our burgeoning population and recover from the under capitalization of a previous era. There’s still a lot to be done and there are multibillion dollar projects underway at the moment, such as the Central Interceptor project.


        Although Watercare is far from perfect, it is at least getting things done (which is more than you can say about most other towns in New Zealand), but this has to be paid for by the residents of this wonderful city. Hence the waster charge. Nothing is truly free and if you started to exclude certain parts of the population from paying, the cost to others would rise. Do you have a better scheme in mind?

        (Disclosure: I’m a retired engineer who has worked on several Watercare projects)

    • Andrew – The good earth provides water, and anyone can dig for it, nowadays with the appreciate consents etc. Sadly, all the digging in the world won’t provide clothes, shoes, food, or vehicles, and therefore folk need to provide these for themselves.

      Let councils charge for water, and next they’ll be taxing the soil in which we grow our peas – sweet or otherwise.

      • You’re paying for the infrastructure, not the water. But the question must be asked in Canterbury, what is the best use of the water resource, and how do we maintain its quality?

        • Ok, thanks. But if they start sectioning out or itemising the Council’s functions, and charging for them on an individual basis, it gives them far too much scope.


    Trillions of litres of free water to dairy in Canterbury which continues to increase nitrate levels to produce both a continuing ecological and public health crisis with no water charging and no accountability. Ecan rubber stamping extended resource consents with minimal reductions to allow continued nitrate pollution for another 10 yrs ,is a more serious issue than Nana overwatering her cabbages.

    Chinese owned water bottling plants eg: Ocean Cloud Belfast which takes billions of lts of free water PA with no cost ,levy or royalty paid .
    And now the average ratepayer is expected to pay for water when dirty dairy and water bottlers don’t ?
    Absolute bullshit.

    Looks alot like privatisation of the water supply by stealth .Wi-fi hi- tech water meters will only accelerate this by automated real time electronic billing systems .

    I have a friend in Sydney who has a 2m property in a heritage suburb who pays around $2400 in rates .A similar property $ 1-2 m in CHCH is around $8000 -$10,000 pa in rates .In an international comparison CHCH people are getting extremely poor value for money as it is and in my opinion have already paid for their water already many times over .

    Pensioners and superannuitants with high equity and low cash flow will be hard hit as they have low disposable income and their gardens are often a central part of older peoples lives.

    A garden city isn’t a garden city if you can’t afford to water your garden .

    Water conservation and revenue generation from water should start by charging BUSINESS for water, primarily agriculture and foreign owned water bottlers .Not rate payers who have already paid in their general rates .

    Rate payers in CHCH are already paying too much on the back of rampant house price inflation continually increasing rates and I predict a major public backlash .

    Wasting water isn’t cool but this is literally a drop in the bucket compared to the unchallenged excesses of other industrial users.

    The solution for residents to avoiding the payment is simple .To save costs…

    Buy some synthetic grass , plastic flowers and concrete the front an back yards with some terracotta pots . We can then watch on from our plastic paradise while Dairy and the Chinese continue to suck us dry .That should work .
    Over it before it has begun .

  4. Liz, agree. I’ve not followed this for yonks, but know that in the UK where water charges were introduced, this was followed by an increase in health problems, impacting, as usual on the poor and low income communities, who always get most clobbered by direct and indirect taxation. Christchurch, built on alluvial plain, has more water resources than many places, enough in fact to give it away to China to sell back to us, or whoever else wants to buy it.

    Social good, my foot. Just another form of bullying revenue collecting, and plain wrong. If they want to save water, then giving it away is another form of madness, and the persons most affected are those least able to stand up for their own interests. Next they will try to penalise those tapping into their own artesian water supplies. Few years back a man called Philip was bottling and selling off Mt Cook air, too.

  5. Look up the percentage of water that gets wasted by leaks which the council are responsible for, it is significant.
    I contacted them 8 times last year about leaks around the area I live in.

  6. Thanks Liz.
    This is Greens driven.
    As usual Green policy impacts the poorest and they would have us believe they care.

  7. I also predict that within a few decades the water table will be so degraded by dairying that they’ll be hitting you up for mega-sized treatment plants.

  8. Citizen 1: “Also don’t say that word”
    Citizen 2: “What MOIST”
    Citizen 1; “No, PRIVATISATION” [dry retches]

  9. I reckon the idiots who water their lawns should pay for excess water use. Also maybe people who mindlessly over water flower gardens.
    I have a perfectly respectable ornamental garden that never gets watered except by rain.
    I say charge those excessive users!
    BUT. Not vegetable growers.
    I wonder if there’s a way of discriminating so that vegetable growers don’t get charged?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.