Water, water everywhere — is a strategic issue

David Parker’s assignment is to persuade a nation that lives much of the time in a fridge that it is living in an oven.

Certainly in Wellington, where Parker delivered his latest high-level climate change musings on Friday, imagining global warming is an out-of-body experience. People arrived bundled in coats and fleece-lined gear — in October.

Parker must nevertheless convince us to cool it and pay for the privilege because if we don’t the world will overcook to a point where very strange and upsetting things happen — in fact, may happen whatever we do thanks to our past and present sins.

But all this has be taken on trust from scientists and their climate change industry sidekicks, economists. Apart from occasional heatwaves — always in some other country — global warming is as unseeable and unfeelable to everyday folk in this country as the End of the World preached by street-corner prophets and strange sects which campaign for the National party.

It doesn’t help to be shown pictures of Antarctic icebergs to prove we are heating up. Icebergs are made of ice.

The good news for Parker is that that steely, rational economist Don Brash now accepts the preponderant judgment of climate change scientists and wants stakeholders to join with his government-to-be to nut out responses.

Parker prefers ex-post-facto “consultations” after his announcements to collaboration in advance. He will make a number of announcements over the next few weeks, notably on agriculture, forestry and an emissions trading scheme for electricity industry carbon emissions.

Large differences remain between the two main parties. But they do now agree something must be done. Which is logical: quite apart from the science, climate change is becoming an inescapable international political reality, commercial reality and trading reality.

Supranational, national and subnational governments have been setting targets to cut carbon emissions and an international emissions trading system is evolving. Insurance companies are refusing contracts for high-risk areas and activities and investment funds are examining companies’ carbon profiles. Competitors with our food exports have begun to campaign on the carbon it takes to transport our food to their markets.

On that ocean of international activism this little country is a pingpong ball. New Zealand has microscopic influence but must play the game for strategic and economic reasons.

Which brings us to water. In this pluvial country water is taken for granted. But it is set to become a major world issue. And over the past four years it has developed into a large and growing issue here, the subject of seminars and conferences, including a three-day one in Christchurch this week which will pick its way through some knotty issues.

Rights to use water from lakes and rivers have been allocated to power companies, farmers and other users on a first-in basis. So it is used inefficiently both economically and environmentally. Planning laws make would-be new users a target for recreational and environmental activists (recall Project Aqua, r.i.p.). Only very limited trading is possible in water rights.

Rights to pollute waterways are also administered bluntly, not traded. Dairy farmers have grasped they have a self-interest in cleaning up, as their international customers get more environmentally picky about brands. But overall we are making slow progress to lift waterway quality to match our clean-green view of ourselves.

And drinking water, now the target of tougher laws, is in many places well below best practice.

Add in climatologists’ projections that the east will be drier and the west wetter over coming decades and you get a big infrastructure policy issue. The government has a tepid “water programme of action”. National wants a dedicated Water Act in place of the present myriad laws.

But at least we have enough water, when eventually we have a modern policy to manage it.

Not so Australia, much of it in the grip of a long, horrendous drought — and, more important, China and India, our twenty-first-century export hopes.

Both countries are reaching or already exceeding the limits of water supplies from rivers, many of which come from the Himalayas, and from ever-deeper wells. Regulations are poorly policed. In northern China and in India water is being used faster than it is arriving by river and rain.

That can’t go on forever. And when the limit is reached, industrial expansion will be constrained and food production growth will stall, affecting particularly the rapidly expanding population of India, where there are now many harrowing stories.

Without water China and India will not become the bonanzas this country is banking on.

All is not lost. Better monsoon storage could help India and the Chinese are tough managers and very inventive.

But when you think of strategic threats, don’t just think of jihadist Muslims. Climate change and energy and water are right up there, too.