That’s become the question of this political term, hasn’t it, the answering of which is going to hold up the government’s flagship sell-a-little-bit programme for its power companies: Can you own water?
Simple answer: Yes, of course you can.
The ownership of water is not only possible, it’s often highly desirable.
It de-politicises arguments about resources.
It solves the Tragedy of the Commons in water.
Recognising ownership in a water resource is not only moral, it’s practical. The answer to the problems cited and many more besides is to recognise there is no greater protection for both environment and water users than the protection of property rights and the legacy of common law -- if only these were allowed to function as they should, by placing the power of law behind those who truly value the specific resource under threat.
Ownership of water not only could happen, it should happen.
If the way to open those floodgates is by recognising specific claims to ownership, however flawed initially, then so be it.
Better it begins some way than never to begin at all.
* * * * *
* I make no comment at all here on the veracity of claims now hitting the headlines, nor on the anachronistic argument asserting property rights were recognised in New Zealand before 1840.
But as Ronald Coase points out, once a property right is finally recognised in law then (as long as transaction costs are kept low) it will end up in the hands of those who value it the most. And that would be a good result, right?
UPDATE 1: The collectivisation of water has failed New Zealanders.
So in addition to the excellent links I’ve provided above, I’d like to highly recommend a Canadian organisation called Environment Probe who have written many excellent things on The Role of Property Rights in Protecting Water Quality, including these many wonderful publications.
If I have land, and collect water on that property, it is mine.
Just because the state treats the sea, rivers and lakes as owned by it and local authorities, doesn't mean that water can't be owned. It is ludicrous to claim otherwise.
Reticulated water costs money. It requires people to work, people to construct, lay, maintain and replace pipelines, dams, pumps and the electricity required to operate them. That isn't free.