By Claire Edmondson, Infrastructure New Zealand Chief Executive

There is general agreement that our drinking water, wastewater and stormwater assets, vital to human health and that of the environment, have too long been ignored and that something needs to be done. The proposal to shift responsibility for those assets to four water entities to better enable the work required has been controversial. As we look to the decisions ahead, the onus will be on elected members and officials at central and local government level to maximise the benefits of reform for the benefit of all New Zealanders and enable a smooth transition.

The Government has established the National Transition Unit (NTU) to execute the Government’s decisions on Three Waters reform. The NTU is operating out of the Department of Internal Affairs and is mandated to ensure the transition to four new Water Services Entities by 1 July 2024 is run in an efficient, effective manner that minimises disruption to communities and consumers. The NTU is soon to release its Three Waters Transformation Discussion Paper. This will come ahead of the Government’s consideration of the Working Group on Representation, Governance and Accountability of the New Water Service Entities’ recent report. The Government is expected to respond to the working group’s recommendations before introducing its proposed legislation to the House around mid-2022. The first Bill will relate to the structure of the entities, including governance, representation, accountability and ownership provisions. This will be when we first see what the governance set up, and operational arrangements really look like.

These recent developments represent the latest progress towards resolving long-standing issues with New Zealand’s Three Waters assets. They will come nearly five-and-a-half years after the Havelock North water contamination incident that gave the reforms their impetus.

Infrastructure New Zealand (INZ) has supported the need for water reform. New Zealanders deserve world-class infrastructure, and there’s plenty of evidence – not just from the reform process itself – that shows that our Three Waters assets simply aren’t of a standard that is fit for the future. We cannot afford to ignore it any longer. INZ’s support continues to be conditional on appropriate accountability and governance arrangements being in place for the proposed water entities.

What has been revealing lately is the suggestion that – despite the controversy, the protests, the public fora, the range of views, local councils banding together in opposition, the volume of media coverage, Government communications efforts and any amount of information online –  a large proportion of New Zealanders apparently know little about the Three Waters reforms. They’re probably even less likely to appreciate that two-thirds of it, in the form of new water regulator Taumata Arowai, and new regulatory arrangements, are largely already in place. Only the third and most contentious part – the effort to upgrade our pipes and plants remains, and will take decades to address. The cost of upgrading our Three Waters infrastructure is likely to total $185 billion over the next 30 years.

There’s an important lesson in the Three Waters Reforms that we should not take infrastructure for granted. New Zealand faces a growing infrastructure deficit, not just with our Three Waters infrastructure, but also in education, health and social housing for starters, and all big issues in their own right.

Resolving the deficit is vital to providing New Zealanders the world-class infrastructure they deserve, and enabling a positive and productive future for our nation.

It’s clear that those who appreciate the scale and nature of the Three Waters reforms, including those in the local government and infrastructure sectors, remain keenly interested – both in the opportunity it presents as a sizeable component of a much-needed infrastructure project pipeline to deliver infrastructure better – but also as an opportunity to step up and contribute to addressing an issue of vital importance to New Zealand’s future success.

There is plenty still to do to make the difference required on New Zealanders’ behalf. 2022 will see a strong legislative programme advancing to bring the water entities into being, and considerable planning alongside a transition of people, information and resources in order for the new water entities to hit the ground running from 1 July 2024. We too will remain keenly interested in progress and look forward to seeing the detail as the legislative programme progresses.

INZ will be sure to have our say, and we encourage all those interested to get informed and do the same. We need a range of views to be heard on issues of vital importance such as this one.