The evolving evidence base of water service delivery

 This article is printed in the March/April edition of Water 2022

The evolving evidence base of water service delivery

Lessons and reflections from the 2020/21 National Performance Review, by Lesley Smith, insights and sustainability advisor, Water New Zealand

When the National Performance Review was first launched in 2008, the national picture of water service provision was largely opaque. Little was known about the number of assets, their contribution to the workforce and economy.

The review launched with the goal of establishing, “a valuable building block for asset owners and managers alike to be able to publicly confirm the standing of the industry and the value delivered from public investment in the three waters assets”.

The knowledge gap was repeatedly thrown up as a roadblock to meaningful reforms of the sector, with various commissions and working groups concluding that too little was known about the performance of service delivery, either to make the case for change, or to catalyse it.

Fast forward to today and the situation is very different. In broad brush strokes we now know a lot about our sector.

Main messages from this year’s National Performance Review tell a story of a sector that is big, and getting bigger – both in terms of economic activity, employment and the contribution to the lives and well-being of our public health and the environment.

The 2020/21 National Performance Review collated information from 38 of the country’s 64 drinking water, wastewater and stormwater service providers, with jurisdictions covering 87 percent of the population.

The water sector is large and makes a large contribution

Collectively, these entities manage assets worth over $40 billion and annually expend more than $3 billion in their ongoing maintenance and development.

At the other end of the pipe, they are responsible for the protection of public health and the environment through the conveyance and treatment of 434,944,945 cubic metres of wastewater. Roughly the same volume as water contained in Lake Rotorua.

Our sector is growing rapidly

Over the past four years the number of properties receiving water and wastewater services has grown by eight percent, and total volumes of water supplied by six percent.

The workforce has slowly been expanding to keep pace growing by six percent over the same period, as has capital expenditure. Capital expenditure amongst all participants grew to $1.8 billion this year, an increase of 16 percent on the previous year.

The boost in capital expenditure in part related to central government three waters reform stimulus, with a reported $136 million in grants received by NPR participants.

Overall growth in expenditure was primarily driven by increased spending in Auckland to service growth. Watercare’s reported capital expenditure on water supply grew from $192 million in the 2020 fiscal year, to $406 million.

Opportunities to evolve

At a high level there is now much that we can say about the water sector. However at an individual network level, our information base has much room to improve, both in what we measure and how.

This year’s National Performance Review focuses on where information limitations exist, in order to start looking at how to provide a more accurate picture of performance in the future.

Now is the ideal time to be taking stock of our evidence base. In 2021, The Water Services Act was passed through parliament introducing new requirements for Taumata Arowai to monitor and report on the environmental performance of drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater networks.

Much of the information that has until now been collected through the National Performance Review on a voluntary basis will soon be captured by the Network Environmental Performance Measure Rules.

We are working closely with Taumata Arowai to ensure that lessons captured through the National Performance Review inform these future reporting requirements, as well as to ensure no information gap in the transition to the mandated reporting requirements.

Once in place, the new rules will make information on the environment and public health available to the whole of New Zealand. Importantly though, they will also help set the focus for how we improve our environmental performance in the future.

Consultation on the measures is open until 28 March on the Taumata Arowai website.

Accessing information through the performance review

The National Performance Review categorises performance outcomes into six groups: public health and environmental protection, resilience, customer focus, reliability, resource efficiency and economic sustainability, as well as providing supporting context on the workforce and assets responsible for delivering these assets.

An overview of the national picture, and limitations in our data is provided in the full report on our website at: detailed performance information at a district level and trended data head to the accompanying dashboard: