A Roadmap to circular economy - What is needed for New Zealand’s three waters in a time of transformation

Author: Emma Botha
Thermalito Power Canal

At a glance

Water is considered our planet's most valuable resource and is vital to the existence of life. In managing the water needs of a population, its collection, distribution and management must ensure the water is safe, reliably available and undertaken with minimal impact on the environment. As populations grow and effects from climate change continue, the challenges on water systems are set to increase.

As such, there is an urgent need for transformational change in the management of water in Aotearoa, involving a move away from a linear mindset where resources are taken from nature, used, and disposed of, to a more sustainable and cyclical approach.

Water is considered our planet's most valuable resource and is vital to the existence of life. In managing the water needs of a population, its collection, distribution and management must ensure the water is safe, reliably available and undertaken with minimal impact on the environment. 

In July 2020 the New Zealand government announced the Three Waters Reform Programme, which will see drinking water, wastewater and stormwater services transferred from councils to ten new Water Service Entities. This transition provides an opportunity to implement a more holistic framework for the management of water; both at a central government and local organisational level.

In line with a commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the Three Waters Reform Programme integrates a Māori perspective, creating the framework for a more holistic approach by providing an alternative lens for the management of resources. Te Mana o te Wai – the vital importance of water, recognises that water is a critical natural resource for the health and well-being of both people and the environment. The water body's health is prioritised, followed by the needs of the people and then commercial interests. This is a significant perspective shift from the historical prioritisation of business and people first.

This aligns well with a circular economy which follows three principles; reduce waste and pollution through design, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.

The water reform has sparked an important conversation. We are now critically thinking about how we provide these essential services in a way that upholds our values and delivers in a way that creates positive social, environmental and financial outcomes. Going forward, these conversations should continue and lead to action.

While the transition to the Three Waters Reform Programme offers a unique opportunity to actively integrate circular economy practices into New Zealand’s infrastructure and water management practices. The approach may evolve in response to the future of the Water Reform Programme, with ongoing integration being both possible and necessary as long as its relevance persists.

How is New Zealand’s Water Management Placed for a Circular Economy?

Currently there is a strong desire to address climate change and the impact it has on water infrastructure at the central and local government levels. However, research revealed that the circular economy framework is not being considered in council sustainability initiatives. Encouragingly, some councils do adopt measures that could fall under the circularity umbrella such as the adoption of energy neutral treatment processes, resource recovery, carbon emission tracking and metering water usage. But there is yet to be a consistent approach across all regions.

While the technical knowledge exists to implement a circular economy into water reform, the issue lies in how to go about it.

A Strategy for Aotearoa

We can use international case studies to inform a circular economy strategy in New Zealand. Broadly, key strategies have been identified to fall into one of four themes:

1. Creating an explicit water infrastructure circular economy strategy

A circular economy is already included in New Zealand’s First Emissions Reduction Plan, the next step is to detail it in a water infrastructure strategy. Central government can provide the overall vision and guidance for a framework to drive systemic change while industry/water service providers can simultaneously create their own strategies and start forming partnerships with other organisations. There are successful examples of this, such as an initiative by Watercare to recover a fertiliser from biosolids and provide pasteurised biosolids with bark as a potting mix for nurseries.

2. Data collection to understand where the biggest impacts can be made

Data collection allows us to understand where our material flows are, not just in water but in other business/sectors where synergies could exist. Being able to quantify performance around decarbonisation and resource efficiency is an important aspect within a circular economy.

A useful example of data capture and use is through the Infrastructure Sustainability Rating Scheme tool, which lets you look at a range of sustainability metrics throughout the infrastructure project life cycle.

3. Form partnerships and collaborate with different organisations

The water sector will not be able to implement a circular economy on its own, but it is achievable through partnerships. Partners can provide inputs or outlets for innovative products. Many circular economy initiatives begin as small-scale ventures and may not ever scale up; however, many small successes can lead to a significant cumulative outcome.

This differs from a traditional engineering approach which would seek one all-encompassing solution. Instead, success can be found through the combination of a range of varied approaches.

4. Initiatives to ease the transition to circularity

To facilitate the implementation of circular economy initiatives (either through voluntary or mandated requirements), financial support from central government will be needed. Funding can prompt organisations to act where they would not have otherwise.

In addition, change can also be driven through government procurement processes, where more sustainable processes have greater weighting.

Making it happen for Aotearoa

The transition to the government’s proposed Three Waters Reform provides a unique opportunity to make positive change. With strategic leadership from central government, mobilised by plans simultaneously implemented at an organisational level, there is an opportunity to make a significant, and urgently needed shift to a more sustainable future via a circular economy framework.