Reframing our Water as a Commons

This article was published in the Hawke’s Bay Today following the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s (HBRC) decision to allow an overseas water bottling plant to take water from the high quality aquifer that lies beneath the cities of Hasting and Napier.  Within New Zealand law there is no single ‘owner’ of this ‘resource’, in part because indigenous Maori are opposed to making something that is essential to our being into a mere economic ‘resource’.  Ko au te whenua, Ko te whenua ko au (I am the land, and the land is me).  This is not a view shared only by Maori.  It is a view of most if not all indigenous thinking, including the thinking of the European tribes before the Scientific Revolution and the rise of a world where dis-integration and analysis of parts became the order of the day.

This wisdom is now alien to most of our policy makers and politicians.  The world is much simpler when reduced to things outside ourselves.  Simpler still when Cartesian dichotomies split people from place and a number then placed on each.  Simpler still when the voice of economics ‘allocating resources’ is the dominant and dubious creed; the paradigm of the power elite.  Yet it is these very philosophies of how we relate as people to our place that are arguably the most important and challenging thoughts for a future that is sustainable.  When administrations think only within a ‘resource’ and ‘market’ view of those things that are integral to being and community, then they completely miss the point of what it is to be.  All their technocratic measurements and allocations are about what it is to have, the irony being that it is that creed of possession for self that will eventually make paupers of us all, even those who starve last.  We need a return to ‘commons’ thinking where land is integral to us, and we to land; and where accumulation of power and possession at the expense of community is no virtue.


There is a clumsy academic term termed ‘cognitive dissonance’. It describes a human trait of irrationality, of a continued fixation upon some treasured idea, perhaps taught at a university or similar seminary experience. This is the way it is. This is what we do. This is the way we do things. The underlying assumptions need never be sought out and acknowledged, never mind questioned. Obedience to current thinking is all. The humility to question and learn is not a desired trait.

When people with a more philosophical bent challenge the cherished worldview, or present evidence to show that the ideas upon which we have based our approach to life is wrong, then the only decent thing to do is to retreat into ignoring the challenge, or disdain, or defense and attack. Those attacked are treated as ‘outsiders’, being ‘against us’ because they are not ‘for us’.

These are also the classic phases of a paradigm shift … before the worldview shifts.

    Protect our commons

We need a change of worldview about so much of what we do in Hawke’s Bay: the way we frame ‘development’ as ‘resource-centred’ rather than ‘people-centred’; our ideas of land use as simple industrial production rather than the creation, enhancement and retention of diversity and value within our ‘bioregion’; our prehistoric views on irrigation as a mechanical construct rather than a wider landscape system.

And the way we look at the water that is under our feet, which we give away to outsiders because ‘no one owns it’, and ‘we work in this legislative environment’, and ‘this is simply the market at work’. All lines of spin we have heard over the last month or so.

Which is all complete nonsense.

Our water – yes, ‘our’ water – is a ‘common’, a ‘common pool resource’ by another clumsy name. It is like our air, our airwaves, the genetics of life. The privatisation of the commons is an historic trend whereby the powerful grab the common good for their gain and the peoples’ loss. It is characteristic of invasion, of feudalism and serfdom, of the many enclosures acts that forced people off their own lands into penury in the slums of Manchester (or Otara), of colonisation, and of privatisation to corporations. It is the same thing, called by many different names. It is a serious and highly significant current and historic issue, with negative legacies that are prevalent around the world. And those privatisations and dispossessions continue.


Economics 101 argues it is for the better of all to privatise the commons because all commons end in ‘tragedy’. The work of Elinor Ostrom, David Bollier, Peter Linebaugh and others have demolished that myth, but those learnings have yet to dent the faith and cognitive dissonance of neo-liberal economists.

Two billion people today still live within commons strongly governed by protocols. Commons are re-emerging as a system of governance in defiance of the privitisation agendas of the last 30 years.

A common is functional and workable when it is managed by a community with a set of social protocols. It is not workable as a free-for-all. We have the community, we have the representatives of that community in our elected councilors, and it is the responsibility of those representatives to ‘see’ our water as more than a first-come-first-served ‘resource’ for the taking, and to develop the necessary set of social protocols.

Steal back the commons

It is not the responsibility of officials to turn to legislation and act as blind functionaries, any more than they should if an alien species came in to claim our air. It is our air, not theirs. It is for us to govern that allocation and harvest in the interests of the community, not leave it to ‘the market’ or ‘there are no laws’ or function upon the inference that there is no basis to act other than laissez faire. We, the community, decide. If we cannot decide, then something is seriously wrong with our protocols and they need to be changed.

12keyassets Ogallala Common

It is irrelevant that there may be enough water to share. What is relevant is that any sharing is a community and governance issue, before it becomes an issue for our administrators. It is highly disturbing when these officials claim the rhetoric of the market for a common pool resource.

Thinking of our water as a managed common gives a completely different model of human morality, behaviour and aspiration, going far beyond the benighted models taught in Economics 101.

What the Regional Council has done in giving access to water bottling by an outside party as a carte blanche illustrates a way of seeing and thinking about community and place that discounts what is important, for what is simply expedient. It has demonstrated, in the words of Robert Sullivan, the “striking characteristic of human civilization [in] its tendency to discount what is most essential to sustaining its long term existence.”

There really is need for more internal thinking and discussion within our government organisations. Robotic obedience may serve someone, but that someone is not our community.

Chris Perley

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8 Responses to Reframing our Water as a Commons

  1. Makere says:

    Tautoko. Great article.

  2. Gary Clode says:

    Hi Chris
    Every word a gem. The hui at Mangaroa on Saturday and last night’s hui at Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga, both of which discussed water issues left Māori frustrated that all HBRC could offer is plans and legislation as a reason why we give our water away overseas, why our aquifer levels fall, why water quality is degrading and why communities have no water. We heard how it takes such a long time to change a plan. Really? So a community has to go without water in its stream (even if it is polluted) because a crazy plan allows it. Farmers cattle crapping in the stream because a plan allows it. It’s no wonder Māori are fed up. We’re not looking after the environment, we’re meddling and enabling the establishment to prosper while Papatuanuku suffers.

  3. clive anstey says:

    I always enjoy your blogs and I admire your tenacity.
    I particularly liked your recent blog exploring the ‘commons’.
    I don’t think the RMA makes sense unless you accept that we do in fact share a ‘commons’ and that development must recognise and respect this.
    The challenge is to enable people to ‘see’ and appreciate the shared context of their lives and the extent to which this is grounded in the places where they live their day to day lives.
    Your writing is always so provocative and stimulating! But there is nothing I can say that you don’t already know!

    • cjkperley says:

      Thanks Gary and Clive. I think the point about the deficiencies of the RMA, and the reliance on ‘plans’, is well made. I have spoken to many old foresters who relate to the common lands that used to be administered all over Europe, lead by foresters, with Woodwards, Assizes Courts, and all these rights and responsibilities embedded within communities and overseen by forest officials. Is that the model for the future – local governance models?

      An anecdote I heard today from a friend who does development work in East Africa. Northern Uganda had lands administered by the elders as commons. All sorts of complicated family-related rights to harvest this or that, with an obvious kaitiakitanga system of ethics. Come the civil wars, people moved north to the refugee camps, and then returned years later. The older people knew all the family relationship of rights and responsibilities, and the whole system of governance started up again. The point my friend made was that if the land had been owned by individuals in lots, then they would have sold out in their time of need, and had nothing to go back to. Major resilience model.

      That dispossession phase (often ‘voluntary’ if you could call it that) always follows the privatisation and allocation phase (the enclosures of the English Commons, the quota system of our common fisheries, etc.). I asked a fisherman recently if he works his own quote and he laughed at me. No, all the small people have sold out to the few big people (something like 3 or 4 own almost the lot now) and the small fishers lease quota off them.

      That pattern of dispossession and wealth/power accumulation is so predominant – and disadvantageous – that it should be acknowledged before any of the nonsense of ‘the market will provide’ etc. People get dispossessed. People lose their governance roles, their rights and responsibilities. People become servants on their own land.

  4. liz remmerswaal says:

    THIS is wonderfully written Chris, thanks hi from berlin home 20 sept liz xxx ps can i forward it to sam mahon ( or have you done so already?)


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  6. cjkperley says:

    Reblogged this on Chris Perley's Blog and commented:

    I’m reblogging this because the current (Spring) sprinkler ban by Hastings District Council has once again raised the whole issue of why – oh for heaven’s sake why – we give our water – *our* water – away to an outside water bottling plant, rationalised with all the empty rhetoric and clichés like “this is simply the market allocating resources,” or “investment, jobs and GDP.” Such ordinary thinking. Such ignorance of our wider world.

    Some are now calling for ignoring the sprinkler ban in order to highlight our discontent. It has certainly raised the issue and kept it in the public eye – and hopefully it will make the councillors responsible realise that they need to demonstrate thinking beyond merely the wording of the regulations and ‘resource management plans’. We are not happy with your financial deal maker thinking on this issue Mr National Party politician, though for most it will be enough to make a vocal stand, and keep our sprinklers off.

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