The Lower Nihotupu Dam in the Waitākere Ranges, Auckland, pictured in November 2019. Since then water levels have gradually declined and are now around 56 percent full. (Photo: Cornell Tukiri ©)

It’s not unusual for John Tamihere, Waipareira’s chief executive, to have a shot at Phil Goff, Auckland’s mayor. JT and Phil traded blows last year in the lead-up to the mayoral election where Phil was voted in again. But the issue this time goes way beyond Auckland’s thirst for more water.

It’s the question about an assumption that, despite Article 2 of the Treaty, Māori no longer have any significant water rights. And JT, (along with his Māori Party co-leader, Debbie Ngarewa Packer) is among those up for the fight.


The demand by the Auckland mayor, Phil Goff, for access to the Waikato River was a lesson in how Māori rights are easily steamrolled.

Who owns the water? It’s a very simple question with a very simple answer. Māori own the water because our customary native title has never been extinguished.

Let’s look at the size of our water resources to give an understanding of how poorly managed and protected our system has become while Māori rights of custodianship and stewardship have been denied.

We’re talking 70 major rivers in Aotearoa, and thousands of streams that run to over 425,000 kilometres. We have more than 4,000 lakes that are one hectare or more in size, and countless outstanding aquifers.

New Zealand is ranked fourth out of 30 OECD countries for the size of our renewable fresh water resources on a per capita basis.

We have an abundance of water, but only five percent of our rainfall is used. In other OECD countries, they use up to 50 percent  of their rainfall.

Auckland is the largest city and largest economy in the country, yet its water supply has been so badly managed that, 18 years after the 1992 drought, the mayor demands that we take, as of right, water from the communities of the Waikato. 

His problem is not a drought. It’s incompetence.

Auckland’s water is managed by a poorly performing monopoly misnamed Watercare that can tax and take at will. They lose nearly 15 percent of their water because of leakage. But, like many other Pākehā businesses, there’s no accountability for them reaching into our tax or ratepayer pockets. There’s no accountability in regard to who owns the water.

If there was a Māori mayor or Māori CEO to blame, there’d be a stampede to vilify them.

Māori own the water because this country was settled by consent, not conquest, under the Treaty of Waitangi. Article 1 gave the Crown custodianship, not ownership.

Article 2, for the avoidance of all doubt, retained, for Māori, absolute control of our waters, our land, and all domains.

Article 3 asserted the right that we would have equality of opportunity with white New Zealanders.

Those three undertakings by all New Zealand governments have been constantly breached.

There is only one piece of legislation that comes close to granting the government some form of management right over our waterways and water. That’s encompassed in section 354 of the Resource Management Act 1991. That section empowers the Crown to allocate water rights. It doesn’t grant ownership.

The government represents white power. It doesn’t represent sharing with the brown Treaty partner.

The New Zealand government has allowed foreigners to pillage our water and monetarise the waters. What we see is a new-age gold rush where hundreds and hundreds of people are now staking a claim over water allocation rights and buying existing allocation rights.

The conduct of all New Zealand governments has always included confiscating Māori assets. The balance sheet of this first world nation has been built off stolen Māori assets — and many of our people live in third world conditions because of that.

But, in 2020 New Zealand, 180 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Māori Party is asserting Māori rights to the ownership of this asset.

Under Māori law we are but custodians and stewards, not owners. But, if Pākehā want to continue to assert their ownership over an asset they don’t own, we consider that to be state-sponsored theft.

Dame Whina Cooper said on the 1975 Land March that not one more acre should be stolen or lost.

Now we’re saying: Not one more litre should be stolen or lost.

It’s time we had an honest, open conversation about this — and that we call a spade a spade. 


John Tamihere is the co-leader of the Māori Party and chief executive of Te Whānau o Waipareira. He is a former Labour MP and served as a cabinet minister in the Labour government from 2002 to 2004. 

© E-Tangata, 2020

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