WATER – What business should do next about New Zealand’s water quality crisis

18 July 2017

A diverse group of people immersed themselves in the Sustainable Business Network’s Freshwater Big Think last week. The deep dive came up with a raft of opportunities for business to lead the restoration of freshwater ecosystems and water quality.

Water quality is New Zealanders’ top environmental concern.

The statistics are clear. Seventy per cent of rivers don’t meet swimming standards. Ninety per cent of wetlands are gone. Half our lakes are polluted with excess nutrients or are over-run with invasive pests. Every year between 18,000 – 34,000 New Zealanders contract waterborne diseases.

So what can business do to help?

  • Change our mind-set. The way we currently think about our waterways doesn’t take into account other values or purposes. We should consider what the world would look like if we saw rivers and streams as thriving, living things that have evolved with us over millennia.
  • Listen to the rivers. Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, said recently: “Water is a taonga to Maori; it is a source of mahinga kai and it carries a life force (mauri)”. We must pay attention to stewardship and restoration of mauri. 
  • Treat freshwater limits as a business opportunity. Limits to the amount of water people and business are permitted to use create scarcity. Scarcity leads to innovation. This can unlock new sources of value and new markets. Freshwater limits could do to the water system what Uber did to the transport system. They will bring about new technologies, analytics, insight tools and communication tools. 
  • Embrace the circular economy. Until recently, the growth of the circular economy has been impeded by insufficient information and financial incentives, constraining regulation and unclear financial value. But new technologies and limits are unlocking this new approach. As barriers to the circular economy start to fall away, we are starting to see new business niches and models. 
  • Prioritise pilots over plans. We know what the problems are. We don’t need to create more plans that sit on the shelf and gather dust. We need to start implementing them and trying things out. 
  • Work together. The decline in freshwater quality and quantity is a system failing. We’re not going to solve it on our own. We need to work together to find and implement solutions.

Will we seize the opportunity?

Participants at the Big Think identified and examined a list of exciting opportunities in three key areas. Look out for the Sustainable Business Network’s upcoming Opportunities Report, which will detail all these initiatives.

In the meantime, here are some of the ideas that emerged:

  • Incorporating water-sensitive design into office buildings. This could include permeable surfaces, reuse, storm water retention, rain gardens or green roofs.
  • Campaigning to inspire action. This could involve hosting events at model buildings. It could focus on issues such as water-centred design and water efficiency.
  • Engaging vehicle companies or companies with large fleets to shift to low-zinc tyres. This will cut contaminants in urban waterways.
  • Water footprinting and water quality risk analysis for farms.

Georgina Hart is project lead for the Sustainable Business Network’s Million Metres Streams project. She says: “I was blown away by the input from all those that took part on the day. A huge thank you to everybody that took part. These are complex issues, but we are now working on the most appropriate ways that SBN can collaborate with others to make some of the ideas we shared into reality.”

Special thanks to our keynote speakers on the day:

  • Dr Daniel Hikuroa, Auckland University: Te Ao Maori and water
  • Irene Parminter, Ministry for Environment
  • Andrew Schollum, Martin Jenkins

Thank you also to our event sponsors: AUT, Yealands Family Wines and Hallertau.