Transforming our water system, for everyone

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

Transforming our water system, for everyone

Aurecon has identified a set of guiding principles which would underpin a successful Three Waters reform system change. By Alexandra Hare, director, Infrastructure Advisory team; Abel Immaraj, director, environment and planning team; and Kevin Werksman, managing director – water for Australia & New Zealand, Aurecon.

The water sector is managed by thousands of individuals who play an integral role in how the future of water is regulated, funded, managed, used, respected, and conserved.

The planned water changes present a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the safety, quality, resilience, accessibility, and performance of our three waters services, in a way that is efficient and affordable for future generations.

Our heritage, process of investment, structures of accountability and decision making, community values, and our need to do better at upholding, aligning, and embedding the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and Te Mana o te Wai, are globally unique and, in many respects, globally leading.

Leaders in our rural and urban communities, iwi, asset managers, policy makers, regulators, elected councillors, business owners and industry advisors are regularly tasked with navigating the complexity of technical information in a way that is digestible and meaningful to each community.

This is complex to navigate as often each leader is tasked with a role as conduit between central government and local government complexity, to provide credible, clear, and well-considered answers to the community. So, where are we now, where are we going and how are we going to get there? Just as importantly, what does this change mean for my whānau and my community?

Water literacy is key to successful system change

We believe that a critical enabler of successful change are the levels of current knowledge around water and water literacy in the public arena. How many people know that one in five Kiwis are supplied with drinking water that does not meet drinking water standards; that 35,000 New Zealanders contract gastrointestinal illnesses each year; and that there were over 2000 wastewater spills that overflowed into our environment in 2020?

Building community understanding of what our current levels of service are and gaining alignment on what we want to achieve, is key to building trust for the change journey we want to go on. Furthermore, being prepared with the right knowledge and understanding of proposed changes, and drawing on lessons from around the globe, will enable better communication with communities around design elements, potential impacts, opportunities, and trade-offs.

Water, and the change to the system of water are deeply personal, drawn from our unique historical evolution, disenfranchisement, and differing levels of underinvestment.

Communities and leaders also face immense pressures such as climate adaptation, population growth, and historical infrastructure deficits.

While one size does not fit all, we are in a unique position to draw on and learn from international experiences and tailor lessons to our unique context, to achieve a world-class water sector and better outcomes for all.

Bringing together the current complexity of change with a series of international case studies as a resource to help our leaders navigate this change, Aurecon has identified some inter-dependent fundamental factors in water reforms, that when implemented well, lead to better outcomes for customers, community, and the environment.

These are customer centricity, transparency, and trust, bound by water literacy of our communities.

Of course, these fundamentals are not unique to water reforms, and regulators and governments are consistently grappling with the tensions and trade-offs amongst competing interests. Water literacy provides a common language, increases understanding, enables dialogue, and creates a shared vision.

How could our communities ultimately recognise these?

Customer centricity

This is about putting the health of people and health of water at the heart of everything we do. Customer centricity is Te Mana o te Wai – and fundamentally embedding the concepts that if the water is healthy, the land is healthy, and the people are healthy, in all design elements of our system. Customer centricity has local communities at its heart, and needs to achieve the right balance of local, catchment wide and national economic, social, and environmental aspirations.

In a customer-centric reform and regulatory environment, the consumer voice must be present, and the consumer must be able to hold the government to account if things aren’t working well.

Where a customer-centric approach is lacking, there is risk of investment in the wrong places at the wrong time, leading to stranded assets, new assets that don’t deal with the problem, and solutions that are unaffordable or too complex for the community to easily adopt, operate, and maintain.


High transparency for consumers means having the information to understand the outcomes we’re seeking to achieve from water reform, why we’re trying to achieve them and the changes to our water and wastewater level of services needed.

Information provided should include greater clarity on the water quality we experience and aspire to, investment required to achieve improved outcomes, and the pricing and charges over time to pay for this investment. It should also include information on who owns what and where decisions are made on price, accountability, and safety.

For information to be transparent it requires completeness of information, accessibility of information, consistency, and most importantly clarity (the ability to easily understand the information).

With effective investment in transparency, consumers can understand water systems, the business of water supply and wastewater services, have accurate information, understand cost and quality that influence the household water bill.


Trust that water reform is needed and fit-for-purpose requires evidence that reform is necessary, and that subsequent outcomes for the communities will be met.

For government policy makers and regulators, trust means the water industry is responsive in a crisis, understands community needs, and that consumers understand what’s happening now and next.

High trust for asset owners depends on strong competency in their core role of delivering services, understanding who they interact with, and what’s needed to be done to increase performance.

Trust is enhanced when water entities and regulators know and understand their lane; people know and understand service entities and regulators’ roles; and there is a clear pathway to increased performance of the system, protection and enhancement of health, safety and the environment.

The transforming water system the journey of change

How do we ensure we are contributing to growing the strength of these key principles through the reform process and beyond?

This requires an integrated programme of cultural transformation, comprehensive strategies, and diligent implementation. We can enable this through early engagement with all stakeholders, respectful consultation, and willing participation to develop and implement the reforms.

Leaders, armed with digestible knowledge to enable thoughtful communication with communities around potential impacts, opportunities, and trade-offs, will be crucial in determining how strong the guiding principles of trust, transparency and customer centricity are evidenced throughout implementation of the changes to the water sector. Over the coming years of reform design and implementation, there will be several pathways through the journey of change: pathways for the consumer, the assets, price, technology, our people, our profession, and ultimately the pathway of water itself.

Each pathway will go through a stage of transitioning, mobilisation, and transformation, and the maturity, capacity and capability of our community and sector are critical to determine the extent and pace of change across each pathway.

This journey will also require individuals in our sector with strengths from lived experiences in mātauranga Māori knowledge, scientific and engineering knowledge, economic and operational conditions to build our collective water literacy.

In doing so this will only strengthen the outcomes for future generations and ensure that customer centricity, trust and transparency equally bind us as we navigate through the journey of change with our most precious natural resource.

This article was authored prior to the Working Group on Accountability,

Governance and Representation report on ways to strengthen the approach to the governance framework for the WSE.