Wellington water crisis: Drought risk driven by capitalism

Water_conservation

Cartoon contributed to Fightback by Cat Kane

by Ian Anderson

In mid-March 2013, Wellington City Council announced a water crisis. Nigel Wilson, chair of the region’s committee in charge of water supply, stated that Wellington, Porirua and the Hutt Valley had only 20 days of water left. From March 16th, the city announced a ban on outdoor water use by residents, with a $20,000 fine for violating – commercial users faced no restrictions.

This follows a regular pattern whereby the council focuses on curbing residential water usage, whether through attempts at residential metering or outright ban in this case. By implication, the council blames residents for any water shortages.

“Non-commercial” and domestic usage
The council generally estimates “non-commercial” usage at around 350 litres per person per day, around half of usage overall. However, “non-commercial” usage includes Council usage, theft, and leaks. Leaks are unaccounted in bulk purchases; in fact around 20% of water in Wellington is unaccounted, compared to a national average of about 10-15%.

Accurate estimates for domestic consumption can be found not in the council figures, but in the nationwide Quality of Life reports. Most recently, the Quality of Life Report ’07 found Wellington domestic consumption between 2001 and 2007 to be on average 170 litres per person per day, on par with other cities. This is less than half of the Wellington City Council’s estimates for “non-commercial” use.

By conflating various uses and misuses under “non-commercial,” this manipulation of statistics gives the misleading impression that residents consume over half of Wellington’s water. Proportionally, industrial users such as Preston’s Meatworks are the biggest users.

drought map

Climate change and drought
The North Island is suffering from its worst drought in 70 years. At the time of writing Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay are officially in drought, with more likely to follow.

In an opinion piece for South Island paper The Press, Physical Geography and Earth Sciences Professor James Renwick suggests that the risk of drought in Aotearoa/NZ is on the rise. Renwick reports that rising global temperatures, combined with lower soil moisture, could double the risk of drought by the end of the century.

Although Renwick does not explicitly state this, sticking strictly to his geographical field, it’s well-established that greenhouse gas emissions are driving global warming. The underlying causes of increasing drought risk are not residential water use, or even commercial water use, but global warming driven by capitalist industry. Agriculture makes up the bulk of our emissions in Aotearoa/NZ; in a grim irony, it’s also the sector most affected by drought.

Solutions: Eco-socialism or barbarism
Discussion of water conservation often focuses on showers, taps, toilets, residential use. Wellington City Council has previously proposed residential water meters, coupled with a user-pays system. User pays for residential water has triggered community resistance in Auckland and elsewhere, because it restricts access to water based on income. Fightback opposes ‘conservation’ efforts which punish poor families and residents.

Even focusing solely on non-commercial usage, a democratically planned socialist approach could meet immediate needs and curb wastage. Installing rainwater tanks in houses can conserve up to 40% of potable water, without significantly limiting real consumption. Fixing pipe leaks could save around 10% of usage. Investing in these options is not profitable like user-pays, but would be more effective for conservation.

There are short-term options available for conserving water, both residential and commercial. However, the underlying causes of increasing drought risk are agricultural, industrial, economic. Ultimately, to end ecologically destructive practices, we must organise to take democratic control.

See also
Climate change: Reform or revolution

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