Last week, an advertisement in the New Zealand Herald warned that Maori people might soon own the water. I was shocked. How can this be? Nobody owns water. So I decided to investigate.
I went to the local dairy, and bought a bottle of water. As I paid for the water, I asked the man behind the counter “If I buy this water, is there any risk that the government will take it off me and give it to Maori people?”
He replied, “I wouldn’t think so, mate”
So far, so reassuring. But then it occurred to me … if I had bought this bottle of water, didn’t that mean that I owned it? And the whole premise of the advertisement had been that nobody can own water! So I asked the shopkeeper “Do I now own this water?”
He looked at me like I was an idiot, then slowly explained “Yeah, mate. She’s, all, yours”
“But, how can I own this water, when they’re saying in the New Zealand Herald that nobody can own water?”
“Oh, that’s the New Zealand Herald – it’s from a place called Auckland, where they get water falling from the sky. I know that seems hard to believe here in Cromwell, mate, but even here nobody owns the water in the river. Unless them bloody Maoris get hold of it.”
“But you can own water in a bottle?”
“Yeah, it’s different, mate. Water in a bottle, water in a river; they’re completely different”
That all seemed pretty straightforward. Then I heard about another scandal involving water. Apparently up in Ashburton, the local council had sold land to a company that was going to extract water from the ground and put it in bottles to sell overseas. This seemed a bit worrying – the guy had said that you could own water in bottles because it was completely different from water in the river. But where was the water in the ground in Ashburton coming from?
On the outskirts of Ashburton, I found a local. I asked him, “Have you heard about these people who want to take water out of the ground and put it in bottles?”
“Yeah mate, it’s a bloody disgrace. Nobody can own that water – it’s the common right of everyone to use that water to irrigate pasture to feed our cows.”
“Do you know where the water comes from before it gets into the ground?”
“Yeah, it comes from the rivers, which bring it down from the mountains. It rains up there, you know.”
Wow! If this man was being honest with me, the mysterious people were going to take the kind of water you can’t own (water in rivers) and pass it off as the kind of water you can own (water in bottles). Had I uncovered some massive fraud?
“So, has anyone rung the police about this?”
“Why would they do that? It’s nothing illegal”
Hmmm. Then I had a brainwave, and asked “So, are they Maoris? Is that how they’re allowed to own the water?”
“Maoris? Dunno. They’re a company from Christchurch, so I doubt they’re Maori”
Next I met with a water lawyer in her plush office on the main street of Ashburton, and asked her, “how has this company been able to buy the water off the council? I thought nobody owned the water?”
“Oh”, she replied, “They haven’t bought the water. They’ve bought Plot 9”
Plot 9? it sounded like the name of a bad science fiction movie.
“What is Plot 9?”
“It’s an area of land in the Ashburton Business Park”
“So how do they own the water, if they only bought the plot?”
“Well, you see, the plot owns a trust in Panama”
“How can a plot of land in a park own something?”
“Well, the Panamanian trust registry don’t know it’s a plot of land, because of secrecy provisions. For all they know, it could be a person, or a company or the Whanganui river, which are also people.”
“Pay attention. They don’t know it’s not a person, so they let it own water in New Zealand”
“But you can’t own water in New Zealand”
“Not under New Zealand law, but under Liechtensteinian law you can own water in New Zealand”
“Yeah, they’re a tax haven. We can blame them for stuff.”
“But how does Liechtensteinian law apply to a trust in Panama owning water in New Zealand?”
“Well, under the Tax Haven Co-operation Agreement, Panama has to recognise Liechtensteinian law over New Zealand water rights, even if it conflicts with Panamanian law”
“But surely New Zealand isn’t a signatory to this Tax Haven Co-operation Agreement?”
“Just a minute” – she got up, and started leafing through a leather-bound tome on the mantelpiece.
After a while she closed the book, and said “Sorry, I am not authorised to tell you whether or not New Zealand is a signatory to the Tax Haven Co-operation Agreement”
The interview was at an end.