Irrigate to prosper

We must irrigate to prosper – that’s the message of Irrigation NZ chief executive Andrew Curtis.

It’s about time we moved beyond the unhelpful rhetoric expressed in Mike Joy’s opinion piece (Intensification benefits untrue, Nov 29). New Zealanders need to grasp the connection between the productive use of water and our lifestyles.

Our neighbours over the ditch have. Everyone in Australia realises the importance of water to their economy, and the subsequent need for irrigation and modern water supply infrastructure. Australians are much better at seeing the big picture – the link between their quality of life, the availability, diversity and cost of food they consume and efficient water use – whether the water is used by urban residents or rural.

As a result there is bipartisan support for investment in rural water-supply infrastructure for the irrigation of crops. Australian politicians across the spectrum recognise it is in the national interest to do this. The continued socio-economic wellbeing of Australia and its food security depends on this. The political rhetoric across the Tasman is now about how this is done – not whether it should be.

New Zealand has two options when it comes to the future of water and agriculture.

Option 1: Do nothing and watch the gradual decline of agriculture in New Zealand.

Climate-change predictions show New Zealand is going to become warmer (plants will use more water when they grow) and drier (less water available for plants to use). The prevalence of “large-storm events” is also predicted to increase. This is perhaps more significant. Even if annual rainfall reduces only slightly, if more of it comes at once then most will not be able to be captured by the soils of productive land. Irrigation will become essential to enable full production in many areas – not just a tool to manage drought risk.

New Zealand’s export markets and the consumers are also becoming more demanding. Everyone wants safe, high-quality produce but few are prepared to pay the true cost of producing it in a sustainable manner. Recent surveys by IrrigationNZ suggest that, when a food price increase is linked to improved environmental outcomes, people state they are happy with the status quo. The environmental challenges created through land use intensification are ultimately created by everyone.

Given that New Zealand’s wellbeing (our economy) is founded on agricultural exports, doing nothing is not viable

Option 2: As a nation, we decide that water infrastructure for irrigation is essential to future-proof agriculture in our highly productive plains and foothill environments and we consciously invest in efficient and sustainable water management.

Irrigation has well-proven benefits. Irrigated land is at least three times more productive than dryland in New Zealand and irrigated farmers are far more financially resilient. For every $1 of public good, at least $3 is returned to the community. That is why irrigation is used as a socio-economic development tool globally by organisations such as the World Bank.

The challenge for irrigation is that in the past we’ve not been great at getting the sustainability component right. However, significant investment is now being focused in this area. More emphasis at the planning stages for irrigation projects through the Irrigation Acceleration Fund and greater investment in Smart (good-practice) irrigation are delivering better outcomes. However, it all comes back to affordability. Yes, irrigators can reduce their footprint and, yes, we can create infrastructure that minimises direct impact on the environment; however, one generation alone is not going to be able to do this. Irrigation is intergenerational investment and its financing model needs to better reflect this.

It would be useful if the excellent brains and resources of people such as Dr Joy or Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright could be redirected into helping irrigators get it right. We need to move past “problem definition”.

Irrigators are committed to turning things around over time so, please, let’s move forward together.

The column by Mike Joy this is responding to is here.

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