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July 30, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Water, I’m reliably informed, is important. Without it everybody dies quite quickly. Combine that importance with a hearty dose of racism and we can understand why, over the last few weeks, Tangata Whenua water rights have dominated political discourse. As the Waitangi Tribunal focuses on our country’s rivers, it’s time to ask: who should own our water?

For many of us, it’s easy to get trapped in the minutiae: justice, self-determination, inalienable rights. Economists are different, in that they are arseholes. They don’t care about the past—who owned what when—their focus is simple: which owners will leave the world better off?

I’m sure you have some loud and uninformed opinion as to whether iwi are those owners, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before asking who should own our water, it’s worth a thought—should anyone own it? The Government has been arguing that it’s impossible to own most rivers. If that’s true, then it’s a pretty stink set-up. When nobody owns something, it’s nobody’s job to look after it.

The (literally) crappy state of our rivers is probably due to those rivers’ ambiguous ownership. If the Manawatu River was in private hands—be that iwi or corporate—then its owners could stop dairy farmers from polluting it. If they didn’t, and that pollution ended up hurting others, then it would be the owners of the river who would end up in trouble. By giving somebody ownership of a river, we make somebody responsible for it.

Naysayers will argue that private ownership can lead to too much power being centralised in one group of people. When one organisation gets to decide whether any farms, factories or towns get water, they can charge through the roof. Luckily there’s no real risk of that here. It just doesn’t make sense to charge too much—you don’t want people to stop buying your water. Whoever owns our rivers will chat with local councils, farms and businesses, and figure out how much they can charge before people stop buying. There’s no reason to be a dickhead.

That’s especially the case for iwi. Because of the systematic racism they face, their place in New Zealand society (not to mention substantial Treaty claims) relies upon the goodwill of the public. They have no reason to jeopardise that.

Iwi are particularly good guardians of our rivers. Even if they weren’t, giving them back our rivers would still make sense. For most of us, the benefit that we’d get from owning a river would be the water that we would get from it. But iwi often argue that their spiritual heritage means that they get more intrinsic benefits from ownership. If a group of people get benefits purely from owning something, benefits that nobody else would get, then it makes sense to just let them own the thing. Opposition to that is either economically dubious or blatantly racist.

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