Water management in New Zealand: a road map for understanding water value

Water New Zealand

With New Zealand facing poorer water quality, and shortages, this paper examines the water situation and the policy challenges it presents.


Better water management will benefit all New Zealanders. The focus on water policy has been driven by poorer water quality, shortages, and unease at the costs with poor water allocation. This paper examines the characteristics of the water situation in New Zealand and the policy challenges it presents. We develop a multi-faceted framework for examining those challenges, with a view to helping stakeholders think about what needs to be done for freshwater policy to more accurately reflect society’s preferences. It has been prepared as part of the NZIER’s public good programme to provide an independent and succinct review of what we know and do not know about the topic.

In preparing this report, we found that a lot has already been written. We did not want to repeat it – we refer to various publications that the reader may seek out. Instead, we wanted to produce a way of thinking about water, water policy, water management and water allocation that would allow us to reflect on current problems and work towards solutions. The goal is to use water wisely for the benefit of New Zealanders. How we do that depends on a wide range of factors, as this report describes. Most importantly, it depends on how we think about water resources. Thus, we focus on producing some mental models that we hope others will find helpful.

This report does not consider any issues arising from the Treaty of Waitangi. We recognise that those issues are important, but we are not experts on them. In addition, the focus of the report is on better water management to improve the wellbeings of all New Zealanders, including tangata whenua.

Water policy in New Zealand has been in a state of flux for quite some time. The uncertainty is driven by increased competition for water, a lack of understanding of society’s preferences, a lack of scientific information about water quality and inertia on the part of some users and institutions. It is clear that this situation is changing. We hope this report contributes something positive to that change.

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