Water essential to feed New Zealand

06 Apr 2018


Reality: plants need water to grow, and that water supply needs to be consistent and reliable.

In the past two years, there have been extreme climatic events, alternating between intense periods of rain and drought. Last winter, heavy rain made vegetable growing difficult in the North Island. Supply was short and prices went up. Supply had to be supplemented from parts of New Zealand that rely on irrigation to sustain fruit and vegetable growing.

In December, the country went into drought. After having had too much water for months, then there was none. In Waimea, growers were forced to make decisions about which trees would not fruit and would have water supply reduced to root stock survival levels only. This is a highly productive area for horticulture and water supply during dry periods is vital. In fact, to maintain production and produce high quality vegetables and fruit a consistent supply of water is needed throughout the main growing areas in New Zealand.

Water storage and irrigation are key for sustainable growth of horticulture to feed New Zealanders. Water storage helps keep river flows at the right level during heavy rain, to use during drought. In many cases, water schemes have full community support, meet the strict environmental requirements around river swimmability and nutrient limits, and augment river flows to keep water ecosystems alive and healthy. This benefits everyone.

The Government’s decision this week to wind down irrigation funding is very disappointing for growers and, will ultimately impact consumers of healthy food and New Zealand’s ongoing prosperity. We are thankful that three schemes already in advanced stages are to be funded: Central Plains Water Stage 2, the Kurow-Duntroon scheme and the Waimea Community Dam. The Waimea scheme is essential to sustainable horticulture production, providing town supply and keeping river flows at optimal levels.

Waimea is an example of the vital funding role Government plays. Local farmers and growers are simply not able to raise the money to fund massive infrastructure that benefits not only them, but the wider community. Many years and hundreds of thousands of dollars go into getting approvals before one drop of water flows.

There is a misconception that irrigation means intensive farming and bad outcomes for the environment. In reality, organic farmers use irrigation and well-managed water storage schemes can lead to good environmental outcomes.  The value of planned, not existing, irrigation projects to New Zealand was over $1.2 billion annually (from The Crown Irrigation Investments briefing to the incoming Government). These schemes add to the wealth of New Zealand, provide food jobs, and keep rural communities viable. 

How irrigated water is used needs to be understood in the full context of the environment, maintaining healthy rivers, urban water supply, productive and sustainable vegetable and fruit growing, and meeting climate change challenges.  Our plea to the Government is that they don’t rule out large-scale irrigation schemes as bad, but that they look at the purpose of water storage schemes and make decisions based on good outcomes overall.

There are two truths: plants need water to survive and climate change means food is being grown where it would not be possible without irrigation.

- Mike Chapman, CEO