As with the radio spectrum, so it is with freshwater rights. A different time and a different society requires a different paradigm from the traditional “we know best” approach of government.
Last week, we looked at the Wireless Commons and argued that making the radio spectrum a part of “The Commons” would lead to greater competition for the delivery of wireless services. Instead of competition for the radio spectrum resource, a Wireless Commons approach would encourage competition at the service level.

Following this new paradigm would also stop the monopolisation of broad swathes of valuable spectrum by the mobile telcos. The consequence will be improved services for those rural users dependent on the wireless delivery of fast broadband services.

To avoid the “tragedy of the commons”, whereby overuse by traders degrades unlicensed spectrum for everyone else, a ‘Managed Spectrum Parks” type of approach was promoted.

This approach would yield an outcome similar to that achieved by the deregulation of Telecom following the Ultra Fast Broadband initiative. Chorus and other local fibre companies are the providers of the fibre resource, with the new Telecom and others competing at the service delivery level.

Could the same principle be applied to other areas of societal contention? Like freshwater, global warming or the money supply?

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Considering water first, and before developing the concept of a ‘Water Commons’, some background details needs to be covered.

450px-Water_pollution_in_the_Wairarapa

Water pollution due to dairy farming in the Wairarapa in New Zealand

That New Zealand does not have a national issue around freshwater supply is clear.

However, there are some areas in which minimum water flows are problematic in dry periods. The Ministry For the Environment published a map that illustrates those areas in which there may be an issue. In 2010, New Zealand’s allocated water was less than 5% of our renewable freshwater resource.

In contrast, a 2008 report by the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development identified that, “By 2012 all the available freshwater resources in our most economicaly [sic] significant regions will be fully allocated to users on what is essentially a first-in, first-served basis”.

This statement encapsulates two future issues around the management of freshwater.

First is the primary consideration of water being an economic resource, ahead of it being a social and cultural resource.

Second is the first-in, first-served approach that will inevitably lead to the Tragedy of the Commons. This is the major issue that needs to be addressed in how water access and usage rights are to be managed in the future.

The same ideology around economics is reflected in the final report of the Land and Water Forum published at the end of last year. In a press release last November, Environment Minister Amy Adams said “The Forum’s key recommendations identify how water can be better allocated for high-value use, focus on what councils and communities need to actively manage water quality and call for clearer accountabilities for resource managers and users.”

This focus is repeated in the National Policy Statement (NPS) on Freshwater Management, published in May 2011. The NPS is important because it directs the considerations and decisions of the Regional Councils that are charged with managing freshwater quality and quantity issues.

The one thing that pervades all of these official documents is that economic value is what will drive the decision makers. Yet it is precisely that focus that has led to global warming and the global economic crisis.

As with the radio spectrum, so it is with freshwater rights. A different time and a different society requires a different paradigm from the traditional “we know best” approach of government.