Dr Ali Memon
A final decision on the proposed CPW (Central Plains Water) scheme needs to be left to the consent-granting authorities, according Christchurch city mayoral candidate Bob Parker (The Press, September 10 2007).
The basis for this position is that the issues raised by this proposed irrigation scheme are simply too complex for members of the public to grasp.
On the contrary, we are concerned that the merits of the CPW proposal are not being discussed in the public arena in an informed manner. In our view, it is unacceptable to argue that the issues are too complicated and to defer to a group of experts arguing their case in an adversarial setting.
We acknowledge that the final decision will be made by the elected local authorities and the Environment Court – and that the RMA gives the public the right to make submissions. However, the CPW proposal is so important, in terms of its potential regional economic contribution and possible environmental and public health impacts, that its relative merits deserve to be publicly deliberated in an informed manner before elected local authorities and the Environment Court consider it within the confines of their statutory planning responsibilities.
In the eyes of many New Zealanders, limiting opportunities for public engagement in resource decision-making to channels of electoral democracy, as provided under the RMA, is not sufficient. Public participation in the RMA process is expensive and daunting for many. The RMA process is not necessarily an even playing field from the perspective of those who do not stand to gain financially from favourable outcomes. There is some financial assistance available through the Ministry for Environment’s Legal Aid Fund, but the public is cynical about how seriously public views are taken into account by decision makers. Some view public participation as a token gesture by councils and the Environment Court.
There is also a growing perception that the RMA resource consent process is dominated by professionals such as lawyers and technical experts. There is a risk that the RMA process can privilege expert knowledge (deemed as “hard scientific” knowledge held by expert witnesses) over experiential knowledge of local residents.
Some practitioners have recently expressed concerns about the apparent difficulty for the Environment Court to pay sufficient regard to assessing cumulative impacts under the RMA.
It is manifestly clear that many people and stakeholder groups now expect the opportunity to develop informed opinions about relative merits of major resource development projects. They also expect these issues to be debated transparently in the public arena prior to planning consent hearings. We see this trend as a call for participatory democracy, and we would like to see the Canterbury Regional Council take a leadership role in this respect.
We are not opposed to the CPW scheme in principle. Nevertheless, we are concerned that public deliberation of the CPW scheme as an exercise in participatory democracy leaves a lot to be desired. We all know that Canterbury’s agricultural prosperity has been achieved by harnessing water for irrigation. It is imperative that for the future economic well-being of all Cantabarians (urban and rural) adequate water resources are made available to meet the needs of the farming industry. The CPW is one such proposed water storage initiative and others will be mooted. (In fact the Minister for Economic Development, Jim Anderton, has just announced a funding package to promote benefits of irrigation to communities).
But it is equally imperative that we embark on large scale water resource development projects in Canterbury based on a long term strategy for allocation of increasingly scarce water resources from a holistic regional perspective, based on integrated catchment management plans. The Waitaki Catchment Water Allocation Regional Plan is a good example. The CPW scheme is at present being publicly debated in a strategic policy vacuum as a one-off project. This is not good-enough. We are concerned that the Canterbury Regional Council has hitherto allocated water on a first-come, first-served basis in the absence of a regionally based strategy. The Council is now proposing to address the strategic “big picture” issues relating to allocation of water resources within a sustainable development framework under the mandate set out in the Local Government Act 2002. This is a forward step. However, given the major allocation decisions in the pipeline, this response seems a bit late.
New Zealand also needs a national sustainable development policy framework to guide communities about how they should manage their resources. The Government’s Sustainable Water Programme of Action appears to have lost steam.
We are also concerned with the public uncertainty around how the proposed CPW scheme will impact on the environment, including public health. Many of the experts with access to technical information have contractual commitments to their clients. Understandably, they are reluctant or unable to put this information in the public arena.
In conclusion, it is evident that we must move on from an adversarial science-based approach to decision-making, towards collaborative processes informed by the best information in line with a sustainable development vision. Coupled with this, we also need to acknowledge and respect difference and diversity in our formal and informal water governance institutions more transparently than we have done so far.
Dr Ali Memon is Professor of Planning & Environmental Management in the Environment, Society & Design Division, Lincoln University. Kelvin Nicolle is the manager for the University’s Waterwatch Programme and Senior Tutor in environmental monitoring.