The bottled water industry gets our best water for free and sell it back to us, while we get the second rate stuff through our taps

Having spent what feels like half of my life trying to highlight the decline of freshwater in New Zealand and the causes it is infuriating beyond description to realise that through this work I am playing into the hands of the mostly transnational water bottling companies operating in New Zealand.

I have been part of a small but determined bunch of New Zealanders revealing the science on how intensive agriculture and horticulture has and is increasingly driving among other things rising nitrate levels in rivers, lakes, estuaries and groundwater leading to ecological and aesthetic harm.

To add to that list, over recent years evidence has been emerging about the threat of nitrate in water to human health. Evidence is growing that at levels of nitrate contamination in drinking water close to the those known to trigger declines in ecosystem health give an increased risk of cancer. This emerging science is summarised in our recent publication highlighting the link between nitrate contamination of drinking water cancers in humans particularly bowel cancer. Worryingly, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. 

The collaborative research by the Universities of Otago, Loughborough, Auckland and Victoria found 800,000 (17%) of people in New Zealand are exposed to nitrate levels in their household drinking water above those found to be a risk in international studies.

Given that our research would be scare people into buying bottled water my co-researcher from the Otago School of medicine Tim Chambers and I decided to look at levels of nitrate in bottled water. The research was recently published revealed that only one of the 10 most common bottled water was near the nitrate cancer risk level the rest were low and four of the samples were so low as to be indetectable. (if the numbers are confusing to convert Nitrate (NO3) to Nitrate-Nitrogen (NO3-N), multiply by 0.2259. To convert Nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N) to Nitrate (NO3), multiply by 4.4268.). So the water bottling companies get our very best water from deep bores yet to be contaminated, while a large and growing number of New Zealanders get the contaminated stuff through the tap.  

What makes this even more galling is that these bottling companies get the best water for free. You see former Prime Minister John Key among other politicians made it loud and clear that no one owns water in New Zealand. I’m sure the international bottled water industry must surely see New Zealand as a great opportunity. A country with a clean green reputation, reputably some of the cleanest water in the world, but fortunately for them a country that places no monetary value on water. I bet they can’t believe their luck; you can come to New Zealand take their water for free and sell it them! What a bunch of mugs!

The reason politicians repeat the ‘nobody owns water’ statement is that no government has been prepared to take on the vexed issue of water ownership in New Zealand. Much safer to just say ‘no one owns water’ while millions of dollars are made trading it and using it for agriculture and more. The New Zealand Maori Council has made a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 2358) over the ownership of water and this issue must be faced up to immediately. How much longer well we refuse to realise the value of water because of this clear failure of leadership?

How much longer will we allow transnationals to make a laughingstock of us? How long will we allow our water to be degraded by industrial unnecessary industrial food production.

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