Water

I’m awake. Why am I awake? It’s still dark outside – must be early. I look at the alarm clock beside my bed. It’s 5:30 in the morning; why am I awake?! Hang on, what’s that sound… It sounds like the shower is running. What’s going on? My husband is still in bed beside me. Did someone break into our house to have a shower??

I’m still half asleep and not thinking straight, but I stumble out of bed to go investigate. Opening the bathroom door I see water spurting out of a pipe beneath the hand-basin and a rapidly growing pool of water on the floor. Well fuck. My husband races outside to turn off the water at the mains. Then, with the immediate crisis under wraps, I call our landlord to ask for a plumber to fix the burst pipe, and we set to work mopping up all the water that has flooded the bathroom and surrounding rooms.

***

Water is a topical issue in New Zealand at the moment. Water quality in our lakes and rivers has been in decline for many years now. Dairy farming is the main culprit, but other factors also contribute, like overfishing and mismanagement of wastewater.

After years of scientists, environmental groups and opposition parties complaining about the poor quality of freshwater in our country, the government finally set out to do something about it. Unfortunately, that ‘something‘ amounts to weakening water quality standards so that more rivers and lakes can qualify as ‘swimmable’ without the government or dairy farmers having to actually improve water quality. Under the old standards, a river that was considered swimmable would cause illness in no more than 1 in 100 people who swam in it. The new standards allow for up to 1 in 20 people to catch a nasty bug like E. coli – a disturbingly high risk.

***

In the last couple of weeks, heavy rains have  caused massive flooding in many parts of the country. First, reports filtered through of flooding at friends’ baches (holiday homes) in the Coromandel, with lawns turning into lakes and road closures cutting off access to several seaside communities. Then the rains arrived in earnest in Auckland, with West Auckland suburbs being particularly hard hit – think waist-high flash flooding, sinkholes opening up and sewage overflows. A colleague of mine saw it as a kind of karmic retribution for letting our rivers and lakes become so polluted.

One consequence of the flash flooding and slips that accompanied the stormy weather was a lot of unsettled silt in the dams that supply half of Auckland’s water. As a result, the treatment plant is having to work harder than normal to clean the water, and Aucklanders have been asked to reduce our water usage by 20 litres each day or risk having our water supply topped up with partially-treated water that may not be safe to drink.

With Aucklanders using on average 160 litres of water per person per day, this water reduction request isn’t particularly onerous and we’ve so far managed to stick to it. But the possibility of not having drinkable tap water seems a far cry from what we’ve grown accustomed to in urban New Zealand (last year’s drinking water contamination scandal in Havelock North notwithstanding).

***

This Wednesday 22 March is World Water Day. Oxfam are running Taps Off Day, a challenge that aims to raise awareness about the many communities around the world who don’t have access to clean water, and to make us consider how we would manage in the event of an emergency that cuts off access to our regular water supply.

I’ve already experienced the frustrations of going without tap water recently. After the pipe burst in my bathroom earlier this year, my husband and I had several hours at home with the water turned off while waiting for a plumber to arrive. Having no access to running water made our usual morning tasks – like bathing, washing our hands, having a cup of tea with breakfast, rinsing our dishes – much more challenging. If we didn’t already have a 10-litre container of water left over from a camping trip then we wouldn’t have had access to any clean water for drinking or washing. (Yes, I’ve heard the old trick about using water from your toilet cistern, but having seen the inside of our cistern I’d rather not go there!) This experience made me appreciate just how lucky we are to have clean, running water. Running water makes simple things like washing your hands so much easier. And instant access to drinkable water is a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted – and essential for reducing the waste associated with bottled water.

It seems fitting that Taps Off Day is happening now. The events of the last few weeks highlight how vulnerable our water and wastewater systems are to extreme weather events, which are predicted to become more common as climate change progresses. Can you imagine a life without clean tap water? What would you do if your water supply was cut off for a few hours, a day, a week or longer? And how do we make our water systems more resilient in the face of an increasingly unpredictable future?

Aim low enough and you’re sure to miss the point completely

New Zealand’s Climate Change Minister, Tim Groser, yesterday announced the government’s new carbon emissions reduction target: an 11% reduction below 1990 emission levels by 2030. Far from being “a significant increase on our current target“, it’s a pathetic increase from our pathetic existing target — a 5% reduction by 2020 — and it gives us an extra decade of humming and hawing.

Let’s consider two points: Firstly, if we want a reasonable chance of keeping global warming below 2°C, we can only emit another 1,000 billion to 1,200 billion tonnes of carbon globally. At current emission rates we’re set to blow that budget within 30 years. In fact, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change, we need to immediately start reducing emissions by 5.5% per year in order to keep within this budget. (Note that 2°C of warming makes for a pretty hellish future and that “a reasonable chance” actually means we have a one in three chance of exceeding that limit 2°C even if we stay within the carbon budget — sounds great, right?)

Secondly, on a per capita basis, New Zealand is the 5th highest emitter of greenhouse gases among industrial nations worldwide, despite already generating almost 80% of our electricity using renewable energy sources, so we really ought to be pulling our weight when it comes reducing carbon emissions.

It’s obvious that our new carbon emissions targets don’t cut the mustard. While the world desperately needs change, New Zealand’s government wants to send us merrily down the path of business-as-usual, continuing to emit way more greenhouse gases than we have any right to.

Adding insult to injury, Tim Groser blatantly ignored the 16,000 submissions from New Zealanders calling for strong emission reduction targets because he reckons they aren’t “representative of New Zealanders’ views.” Honestly, there’s no arguing with that kind of logic!

TPPA – it’s Taking People’s Power Away

Have you heard of the TPPA? There’s a good chance you haven’t. And when you first do, it sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory: A bunch of governments getting together to sign away the rights of their countries to transnational corporations.

Surely that would never happen? Would it?

TPPA stands for Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. As the name suggests, it’s a free trade agreement between Pacific rim countries: United States, New Zealand, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. And it’s making a lot of intelligent people very worried.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know exactly what to be worried about, because all the negotiations are going on behind closed doors so the public have to rely on leaked documents to get a feel for what’s being proposed.

Based on these leaks, Kiwi opponents to the TPPA fear it could threaten our healthcare system, food safety, intellectual property rights, financial controls, and right to legislate. The two aspects of the TPPA that concern me the most (aside from the secrecy surrounding the whole negotiation process) are the potential impacts on healthcare and environmental protection.

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Why I like MMP

It seems that the fact that we’re having a Referendum at the same time as the election this year has been lost amongst all the election drama (lions and tigers and tea-tapes, oh my!). This is unfortunate, because the referendum is really important — it will affect what our parliament looks like for decades to come, not just the next three years.

I think this referendum is insanely important, but I do not want to tell you what to vote for. There is an abundance of information on the official Electoral Comission website that tells you how the referendum works, how the five different voting systems work (including five great videos explaining the systems), and how to decide which one(s) you like best.

However, I am going to say that I like MMP, and here’s why:

  • My vote counts, no matter where I live. Under solely electorate-based systems like FPP, S[&]M and PV, if I live in an electorate that traditionally has strong support for a particular party (e.g. Epsom for National or Mt Albert for Labour) but I want to vote for another party then my vote will probably be wasted. If I live in any electorate and support a smaller party (i.e. anyone other than Labour or National) then my vote will also likely be wasted.
  • My vote counts, no matter who I vote for. My vote influences which parties do or do not get into parliament. The exception to this rule is that my vote is wasted if the proportion of other voters who agree with me is less than 1 in 20 and the party I support does not have strong enough support in a particular area to win an electorate seat. However, this 5% / one electorate seat threshold is one of the aspects of MMP that will be reviewed in 2012 if at least half of us vote to keep MMP at the referendum this Saturday.
  • MMP creates more effective parliaments. Parliament is more likely to contain a diverse range of parties who are able and willing to debate the weaker points of legislation. This curtails the ability of governments to rush through legislation that is poorly thought-out, contains giant holes, or is generally bad. That said, despite this apparent ability of MMP to slow down the passing of legislation, National has done a wonderful job of rushing legislation through under urgency during their current term in government.
  • MMP creates more diverse parliaments that are more representative of the general population. The number of female, Maori, Pacific and Asian politicians have all significantly increased since we first switched from FPP to MMP (i.e., the proportion of these groups in parliament is now closer to their proportion in society). While I do think there would have been a trend towards more balanced political representation even without MMP, it is clear that young people, females, ethnic minorities and other minorities have a much better chance of getting into parliament on a party list than as an electorate candidate campaigning against a middle-aged (or older) white man.
  • I identify more with party policies than electorate MPs. I’ve grown up in an increasingly connected world; I can easily contact any politician using the internet, so I have no need to go down to my local MP’s office. I see no real need to have strong local representation in parliament; each electorate contains a diverse group of people, and local issues will generally be dealt with by local governments. The majority of legislation in parliament is voted for along party lines. List MPs (like Gareth Hughes from the Green Party) have demonstrated that they can campaign effectively and enthusiastically for localised issues (like the Auckland Rail Link) in areas that they do not live in.
  • I’ve grown up with it; it’s all I’ve ever known. When MMP was adopted in 1994, the entirety of my political knowledge was that New Zealand had a Prime Minister called Jim Bolger. My brother and I even had a duplo figure named after him!

I’d like to reiterate that if you haven’t already figured out how you’ll be voting in the referendum then you should check out all the resources on the official referendum website. While I have your attention (I still have your attention, right?) I’d like to also mention the reasons why you should vote:

  • Because there was a time when you couldn’t.
  • Because many people around the world still can’t.
  • Because under MMP your vote counts.
  • Because each party has very different policies this election, so the result of the election is highly likely to impact you.
  • Because you have no right to complain about the state of the country if you don’t.
  • Because this election we’re also holding a referendum on the voting system, which could affect what our parliaments and governments look like for many years to come, not just for the next three years (does this sound familiar?)

…so get out there and vote!