Could the opposition do a better job with water resource management?

31 March 2012

I doubt it.  Opposition politicians are always quick to criticize the incumbent government about their inadequacies but are slow in coming forward with alternative plans to do things better.  The reality is that, should they come to power, they will simply inherit the mess left behind by the previous incumbents.  This type of situation highlights why it is so important to render departments managing something as important as water, as apolitical as possible and to ensure  a professional continuity of skills and resources that is independent of who is in charge.  Such departments should never suffer from the scourge of “political (cadre) appointments”.

On this same theme, there is a strong argument for all to contribute to water resource management, not just leave it up to the ruling party.  Wishful thinking perhaps?

New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, has taken the very positive and praiseworthy step of releasing a paper on water quality issues to raise awareness amongst the countries MPs.  In this approach, Dr Wright has clearly distinguished between the need for an understanding of the science behind water quality issues – and when to not use calls for more scientific investigation as a delaying tactic.

Dr Wright’s report deals with the three water pollutants of greatest concern across New Zealand – pathogens, sediment, and nutrients – in rivers and streams, lakes, wetlands, estuaries, and aquifers.  In this regard she stresses that:

To be effective, water quality policy and action must be based on the cause-and-effect relationships that it is the job of science to uncover. In 1911, there was an outbreak of typhoid among workers in flax mills in the Manawatu. The cause was deemed to be the rancid water coming from the mills, but was actually sewage from Feilding. Though we would not make this mistake today, we are still capable of wrongly linking cause and effect, a mistake that makes it impossible to intervene effectively.

We need, though, to know when more science is not needed. A call for more science to be done can sometimes be a way of delaying difficult decisions. There is no need for more science to establish the link between the change in land use that has taken place in Southland’s Waituna catchment and the dire state of the Waituna Lagoon. There simply is no other explanation.

Though science is indeed necessary for policy, it is not sufficient. Science does not tell us how to make trade-offs. And trade- offs will almost certainly be needed.

Freshwater quality was the subject of high public concern and vigorous debate and one of the biggest environmental challenges facing New Zealand, Dr Wright said. [Source: Dominion Post].

Well done Dr Wright!  We know what causes most of the water quality problems the world is facing – and have known this for a long time.  What is needed now is to use scientific knowledge in an applied fashion to best intervene to attenuate the problems.

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