No human, animal or plant can possibly exist without water. Our appreciation of this fact ranges from tending pot-plants on the window sill to advanced space missions exploring extra-terrestrial bodies and their likelihood of supporting life.

The Bible, Church prayers, hymns and sacraments are replete with references to water. Water is a metaphor for spiritual nourishment, regeneration and cleansing. The Old Testament speaks of God as the fountain of living water (Jeremiah 2:13) while Jesus stated that “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14).

God’s word and our expressions of worship tap in to our very human need for water. It is not just required for our comfort but is essential for our survival. Water and the environment in general are of tremendous cultural significance, too. Henare Ngaia (kaumatua of Taranaki and of the Catholic Hui Aranga) explains that both Genesis and Maori accounts of creation cast humans as the potiki – the youngest members of our natural environment who have a duty of care towards our elders, including our local rivers, lakes and oceans.[1]

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) clearly states the importance of water: “The right to water, as all human rights, finds its basis in human dignity and not in any kind of quantitative assessment that considers water as merely an economic good. Without water, life is threatened. Therefore the right to safe drinking water is a universal and inalienable right.”[2] So water is critical to the dignity of the human person, the central principle of CST that recognises the intrinsic worth of humans as being created equal and in God’s image.

Water also exemplifies the principle of the universal destination of goods. This states that God’s creation is intended for every human’s sustenance, without exclusion or favour. In 2004 Pope St John Paul II stated clearly that “as a gift from God, water is a vital element essential to survival; thus, everyone has a right to it”.[3] He also warned that universal access to basic human rights (including drinkable water) are still far from being “guaranteed and realized” in regions of underdevelopment.[4] This comment touches on the preferential option for the poor that is associated with the universal destination of goods. In imitating Christ and exercising Christian social responsibility we should place particular concern on the welfare of the poor, the under-privileged and the vulnerable.

Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ calls on us to be responsible and concerned stewards of our natural environment. He reasserts that the right to clean water is fundamental to other human rights and cautions us to the prospect of scarce water supplies eroding human dignity through poverty, disease and conflict. The gross and needless wastage of water indicates ‘that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within a context of great inequality’.[5]

In light of mounting pressures on global water availability and quality, the United Nations (UN) designated 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation.  The UN predicts that based on current water usage trends, two-thirds of the world could be experiencing water stress and almost two billion people will be living in areas with water scarcity by 2025.[6] [7]

Water shortages and degradation are most marked in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where natural supplies are variable and agricultural production is water intensive and increasing relatively rapidly. These regions in the developing world are also characterised by poverty and limited mobility, meaning that water crises are difficult to escape from. To this end, exercising a preferential option for the poor is especially relevant.

The UN’s concern with water co-operation recognises that rivers and bodies of water cross national boundaries and that developed countries can assist less affluent nations in their water management strategies. Water cooperation therefore exemplifies the CST principle of solidarity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that solidarity is both a social principle and a moral virtue which manifests itself in the desire to create social institutions for the benefit of all. [8] Pope St John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis summarises solidarity as a “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”[9]

We in New Zealand might take water for granted. However, there has been much recent public debate and concern over our water quality standards. This was typified by the contamination of Havelock North’s water supply with campylobacter and E.Coli in August 2016; an outbreak that affected more than 5,000 people. A Government inquiry into the outbreak determined that the most likely cause was the presence of sheep faeces in bores and aquifers. The inquiry criticised the Hasting District Council, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council and drinking water assessors for their lack of care, diligence and co-operation.[10]

The Ministry for the Environment notes that although New Zealand’s water quality is good by international benchmarks, it is being threatened by intensified land use. Also, the national weekly water allocation for irrigation, households, manufacturing and other uses nearly doubled between 1999 and 2010 and seasonal shortages are not uncommon, especially in the South Island (see figure 1, below).[11]

Figure 1 – New Zealand water availability by region (Ministry for the Environment)

Between 2008 and 2012 over 50,000 hectares of land were converted from sheep/beef production to dairy use in Canterbury alone. This represented about one third of the national conversion total.[12] Given that 250 litres of irrigation water are required to produce one litre of milk in Canterbury (compared with only one litre of irrigation water in Waikato), it is not surprising that such significant conversion has led to considerable debate in our region.[13] The availability and use of water and its downstream quality are all issues often hotly contested by agencies with competing uses; including farmers, environmental groups and regional and local councils.

Under the Resource Management Act (RMA), Environment Canterbury (ECan) is charged with monitoring water quality and quantity standards. ECan has a network of over 200 monitoring sites in the region. ECan developed the Canterbury Water Management Strategy in 2009 for the sustainable use of water including water allocation and management issues.

ECan regulates water usage in the region by way of water take consents. Water draws in excess of five litres per second require consents and approved water measuring devices. Maximum penalties under the RMA for breaches of these regulations are a fine of $600,000 or two years imprisonment. However there has been recent discussion around the enforcement of these consented allocations. Data from 2013 and 2014 released by ECan to Forest & Bird under the Official Information Act indicated that about 350 monitored water use consents (representing about one in five in the region) were significantly non-compliant but faced little or no sanction. In June 2016 an ECan spokesperson responded by stating that its focus has been on installing accurate water monitors and that it would now prioritise enforcement of consented allocations.[14] Ecan further emphasised its intentions a month later by stating that “the time for warning letters is over”.[15]

The Christchurch City Council raised the prospect of volumetric water charges in 2008 and again in 2015. This would involve charging ratepayers for water usage as measured by the meters that already exist.  At present, most local councils in New Zealand – including Christchurch City – allocate a fixed proportion of rates towards water supply costs. Interestingly, water usage per person in Auckland (where volumetric charges apply) is only about half of that in Christchurch.[16] The charges would be intended to cover the water infrastructure costs and provide an incentive to conserve water.

Water conservation is likely to grow as an issue in Christchurch in the face of estimates that by 2051 demand will exceed the supply obtainable from local aquifers.[17] Indeed, Ecan’s Canterbury Drought Update (July 2016) reported that 86% of their surveyed wells had comparatively low or very low groundwater levels, raising the prospect of rural and urban water restrictions especially in the drought hit areas of North Canterbury, Selwyn and Mid Canterbury.[18]

There are, of course, many methods for councils and regulators to monitor water quality and its allocation to competing users.  The Church expresses caution about the privatisation of water management, however. Catholic social teaching warns that if water is to be distributed by the private sector, the relevant agencies must still recognise that water is a public good: “by its very nature water cannot be treated as just another commodity among many, and it must be used rationally and in solidarity with others”.[19] On the same issue, Pope Francis raises the concern of water supplies being in the control of large multinational businesses and the real potential for conflict that this could cause.[20]

We are called, then, to be stewards of the environment by being responsible users of water. We must also act in solidarity with our brothers and sisters to protect human dignity by striving for adequate clean water supplies for all people. This intrinsic human right to a substance so fundamental to our wellbeing and so steeped in our faith and culture is far too precious to be abused or neglected.


Small yet strong in the love of God, like Saint Francis of Assisi, all of us, as Christians, are called to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live, and all its peoples.


Pope Francis: Evangelii Gaudium (2013)


[1] Caritas, Small yet Strong: Voices from Oceania on the Environment (2014)

[2] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2005), para 485

[3] John Paul II in L’Osservatore Romano (English edition), 17 March 2004

[4] John Paul II, Message for the 2003 World Day of Peace, 5: AAS 95 (2003)

[5] Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ (2015), para 30

[6] http://www.unwater.org/fileadmin/user_upload/watercooperation2013/doc/Factsheets/water_scarcity.pdf. 2013. Retrieved 20 August 2016.

[7] Water stress is defined by the Falkenmark Indicator as an annual supply of less than 1,700 cubic metres per person, while the more severe water scarcity is an annual supply of less than 1,000 cubic metres per person.

[8] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, para 193

[9] Ibid, para 193

[10] Department of Internal Affairs, Report of the Havelock North Drinking Water Inquiry: Stage 1 (10 May 2017)

[11] http://www.mfe.govt.nz/fresh-water/overview-fresh-water/quality-and-availability. Retrieved 10 September 2016.

[12] Timar, L., Kellar E. and Le, T. A regional summary of 2012 land use. Motu Economic and Public Policy Research (April 2015).

[13] Zonderland-Thomassen, M.A. and Ledgard, S.F. (2012). Water footprinting – A comparison of methods using New Zealand dairy farming as a case study. Agricultural Systems, Vol 10, pp. 30-40.

[14] http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/81191467/millions-of-litres-of-water-illegally-taken-is-ecan-doing-enough. 20/6/16. Retrieved 25 June 2016.

[15] http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/82530210/ecan-could-have-been-stricter-on-water-rule-breakers-vows-to-change. 27/7/2016. Retrieved 29 July 2016.

[16] http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/65755282/charging-for-water-may-be-best-option. 4/2/2015. Retrieved 22 July 2016.

[17] http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/65705946/Water-charges-on-the-horizon. 3/2/2015. Retrieved 23 July 2016.

[18] http://ecan.govt.nz/news-and-notices/pages/rain-flow-drought-2016.aspx. July 2016. Retrieved 12 August 2016.

[19] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, para 485.

[20] Laudato Si’, para 31.

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