New Zealand’s Water Industry – Lessons Learned

Published on: 07 Nov 2023

Jo Parker, WRc’s Associate Consultant for New Zealand, has been in-country for just over a month. Here are her reflections on the state of the country’s water industry and its comparison with the UK.

In contrast to the UK, with 16 water organisations serving a population close to 67 million, New Zealand has a disjointed water industry, with 64 service providers, most of them local councils, providing water and sewerage services to a population of slightly over 5 million across a landmass about 10% bigger than the UK.

In the UK, the large water utilities often have wide ranging alliances that provide additional services, with a host of different organisations covering the roles, while in New Zealand just one organisation, Water New Zealand, covers everything.

The Labour government was due to restructure the industry into 10 ‘entities’ as part of the Water Services Reform plan (also known as ‘Three Waters’ i.e., clean water, storm water and wastewater), with the proposals bearing a lot of similarity to the UK’s restructuring in 1974. However, the change of government in New Zealand, following the General Election held on 14th October, has meant the proposals currently have an unclear path.

The fragmented water industry in New Zealand has many difficulties, from the management of water services to a worrying lack of personnel and expertise. Water New Zealand has just issued an update to their NRW technical guide, which will require local water managers to update their knowledge base. With many managers overseeing a demanding range of services, from running water and wastewater networks, to water and wastewater treatment plants, and storm water management, they wonder how they can be expert on all fronts. Some even manage activities outside of the water sector along with their water responsibilities.

New Zealand’s water industry has other challenges to be tackled too, including a recent outbreak of cryptosporidium in Queenstown. Shortly after, there was a major sewer collapse in Auckland that led to the closure of beaches around the central harbour – just as the weather started warming up. In addition, there are headlines about the levels of leakage in Wellington where it is feared that water resources may not be sufficient for the summer demands. Whilst this latter problem may sound rather familiar to British ears, the levels of leakage of over 50% certainly are not.

The presence of a new Water regulator, Taumata Arowai, is helping to establish exactly how the industry is performing. Taumata Arowai has recently published its first full year report. This highlighted problems which perhaps were less evident in Water New Zealand’s ‘National Performance Review’, which the latter has produced for a number of years and which gives additional performance information. Taumata Arowai’s website says, “Every year an estimated 34,000 people across Aotearoa (New Zealand) become ill from their drinking water, and many thousands of households must boil their water to drink it safely”. However, there are sceptics, including councillors in charge of water supplies, who do not believe the figures quoted and who say they are exaggerated.

In the UK there are without doubt challenges for the water industry as well. It’s interesting that both countries face headlines criticising the quality of the rivers, the levels of leakage, and the sufficiency of water resources. Both countries may see restructuring of their organisations along with interference from various political parties both in and out of power who use perceived failings of the industry, whether real or not, to gain political advantage. In the meantime, water organisations in both countries have to work with an uncertain future; the industry in both countries has an aging workforce and difficulties attracting sufficiently qualified young people, at least partly due to the poor reputation from which they both suffer. And both countries face tough targets that must be hit by 2030.

Of course, consultants can fill the gap, and WRc are looking forward to working with ProjectMax to strengthen the knowledge within New Zealand’s water utilities. This partnership will support a long-term expansion of each organisation’s capabilities. Both WRc and ProjectMax pride themselves in offering practical hands-on experience that focuses on maximising the benefit of capital investment and minimising operational costs and risks for utilities, and this offers promising opportunities for knowledge transfer between the UK and New Zealand.

Jo Parker is WRc’s Associate Consultant for New Zealand. Jo is leading a new knowledge-sharing partnership with ProjectMax Ltd, a local water infrastructure specialists, to bring the UK and New Zealand closer together on shared water challenges.

Jo Parker, WRc Associate Consultant, New Zealand

Jo Parker

WRc Associate Consultant

2023-11-07 16:25:00