Auditor-General's introduction

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangarangatanga maha o te motu, tēnā koutou.

Managing New Zealand's water resources is, by their nature, challenging. It includes providing safe and secure drinking water, providing effective wastewater and stormwater services, allocating and managing freshwater resources, and balancing the wide range of interests in our marine environment.

As we said when we introduced our programme of work on water management:

The interconnectedness of the water cycle, the relationship between land use and water quality, and the place that water plays in our physical, economic, social, and cultural well-being are at the heart of the challenges associated with water management.1

To manage water resources, public organisations in central and local government need to work in the short and long term with competing interests, often with limited information and resourcing. These challenges will become only more difficult as climate change and other pressures on our water resources become more significant.

The management of the country's water resources is of deep significance and concern to New Zealanders. People expect the water from their taps to be clean and safe, wastewater and stormwater to not pollute the environment, and our rivers, lakes, and oceans to be healthy ecosystems that are safe to swim in and to gather kai moana from. Failure to meet these expectations can cause lasting damage to the public's trust and confidence in public organisations.

For that reason, the work under our water theme during the last two years looked at how well public organisations are managing water resources and delivering water-related services for the benefit of New Zealanders now and in the years to come.

Given the significance of water issues, we expected to find:

  • clear national strategies, objectives, and priorities that are reflected in regional and local strategies and planning documents;
  • coherent work programmes that logically and consistently prioritise resources and activities, and improve collaboration between local and central government and non-governmental organisations;
  • robust systems at national, regional, and local levels for gathering information and reporting on water management issues that are used to deliver continuous improvement;
  • resourcing, planning, and strategic risk management that reflect the complexity, scale, and time frame of the issues that need to be addressed; and
  • strong engagement models with communities of interest and, in particular, Māori.

We found that, although much good work is being done, all of these elements were not in place. What we saw were public organisations trying to do the right thing while working with the resources they have, within the limits of their own roles and responsibilities, and in a context of increasing complexity and uncertainty.

What we did not see was clear agreement across central and local government about the vision for New Zealand's water resources – the issues, objectives, and priorities for water management over the long term that all organisations, public and private, should seek to address. For public organisations to manage water well, they need to know what they are trying to achieve and to monitor progress towards those goals.

The lack of clarity about what the issues are, how to address them, and who will deliver programmes of work increases the risk that public organisations are not directing their efforts towards the same outcomes. It also means that some organisations might carry out work that conflicts with or duplicates that of other organisations, and that investment and policy decisions are not targeted to address the greatest risks or achieve the greatest benefits.

We found that public organisations sometimes make decisions without reliable information about water resources and the infrastructure that delivers water-related services. This is consistent with findings in a recent report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment about New Zealand's environmental reporting system. That report noted that "Ours has been a passive system that has harvested whatever data is there and done the best it can to navigate what's missing … when we try to find out what's happening on our land or what's happening to our water, there are huge gaps."2

For some time, we have reported that public organisations need better information about the condition and performance of assets, including water, wastewater, and stormwater assets. Because of gaps in this information, those responsible for managing the assets that deliver water-related services are often limited in their ability to make well-informed decisions. It also limits the ability to have informed conversations with communities about the risks they are willing to accept, such as the level of flood risk they might be exposed to.

I acknowledge the work under way to address water management challenges – in particular, the Action for Healthy Waterways and the Three Waters Review. However, my overall view is that, outside of those two work programmes, there remains a need for greater national leadership. What is required is agreement on a shared vision that sets out the strategic objectives and priorities for water management more generally and how public organisations and others will collectively deliver this. This is particularly important when multiple and competing economic, environmental, social, and cultural outcomes are sought. Developing a vision also requires considering the capacity of public organisations that will be involved in its delivery, particularly in local government, and how to build community agreement in an often contested area.

I thank the many organisations and individuals involved in supporting this report and our work on water.

Nāku noa, nā

Signature - JR

John Ryan
Controller and Auditor-General

12 February 2020

1: Office of the Auditor-General (2017), Introducing our work programme – Water management, page 8.

2: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (2019), Focusing Aotearoa New Zealand's environmental reporting system, Wellington, page 4.