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Saturday, 24 Mar 2007

Water debate stirs up political waves

By VERNON SMALL - The Dominion Post | Friday, 23 March 2007
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Maori Party comments disputing national ownership of water have triggered a political whirlpool.

The Maori Party claimed yesterday that the Government was unfairly claiming ownership of fresh water in an attempt to extinguish Maori customary rights without negotiation or compensation.

The Government is consulting over water use through its Sustainable Water Programme of Action and says the whole country owns the water and all are responsible for it.

Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia said the Maori Party was just trying to get attention.

"The Maori Party has failed to repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act as it promised and it is now trying to create another tidal wave around so-called confiscation," he said.

"It won't work, iwi saw what happened last time and will see this for what it is. The Maori Party is simply splashing around in a puddle and all it will end up with is muddy boots."

Mr Horomia said successive governments said water was a public resource managed by the Crown for the public.

"Iwi do have interests in water and these are being progressively recognised in settlements, as well as through various consultation measures," he said.

"The Maori Party appears to be increasingly aligning itself with big business and its privatisation agenda and this Government has no intention of privatising water."

National Party conservation spokesman Nick Smith said water was a public resource.

"We think it is a mistake to try and divide the management of water along ethnic lines," he said.

The real challenge was better managing water.

"For any group to claim the water is theirs when fresh water falls from the sky is a stretch too far."

NZ First Maori affairs spokesman Pita Paraone said his caucus was yet to consider it.

"My view is... it's yet to be proven whether Maori have a legitimate claim to the water. I believe the water is a God-given treasure and it's for all people, not just Maori alone."

However the Maori Party got the backing of the Greens. MP Metiria Turei said Maori had rights under the common law and the Treaty over natural resources.

"Every time there's a question as to what that interest might be the Government claims absolute ownership and lock Maori out."

Examples included oil and geothermal energy.

"It's quite proper that the Government and the community allows for that interest to be explored and parameters to be defined and that's all that Maori are asking for that's all we asked for on the foreshore and seabed."

Ms Turei said the Government was looking at a water rights regime where water did become a property right.

"People have the right to extract water for agriculture purposes, for energy companies; to say the system doesn't allow for property rights in water is rubbish. The question of who owns the rain is rubbish - the Government already has a system for allocating rights to water - the fact is Maori have never had any say in how that is done."

The Maori Party claims have echoes of the foreshore and seabed controversy, which sparked its formation.

That was spurred by an Appeal Court decision that if Maori could prove continuous customary use of parts of the seabed and foreshore in some cases that might amount to freehold ownership.

In response the Government legislated to put the foreshore and seabed clearly in the public domain.

South Island iwi Ngai Tahu said ownership of fresh water was a red herring.

"Talk of ownership is a tactic by the Government to inject fear and misinformation into the debate as they did with the foreshore and seabed," spokesman Mark Soloman said.

"Recognition of Maori customary and treaty rights will not deny New Zealanders access to the rivers and lakes, it will simply allow Maori to help protect and preserve the well-being of waterways," Mr Solomon said.

At the heart of the issue was sustainable management and use of fresh water, and Ngai Tahu wanted the right to actively participate in that management.

Mr Solomon said Maori had not been consulted on the draft water policy due to be released by the Crown in May.

Ngai Tahu's rights over fresh water within its tribal area were never dealt with in its 1998 Settlement, and the tribe had reserved its right to address this at a later time, he said.

The Maori Party's Treaty spokesman, Te Ururoa Flavell, said tangata whenua respected their customary rights to water as the exercise of tino rangatiratanga and kaitiakitanga over waterways.

The Waitangi Tribunal had stated in its reports on Whanganui River and Mohaka River that water was a taonga.

"As such, Maori customary title to water belongs to iwi and hapu, according to tikanga Maori," he said.

"The writing is on the wall. Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the human rights laws and standards that were breached with the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, will now be breached in the case of water."

Victoria University Maori Studies lecturer Maria Bargh, in a paper on freshwater issues, said ownership of water was unclear and the Crown must negotiate with Maori and pay compensation if it wanted to extinguish customary title.

"There is no evidence that customary title has been extinguished by common law or statute law."

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