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Water rights debate 'not a land grab'

Published: 12:04PM Sunday August 19, 2012 Source: ONE News

The debate over water rights is not a "land grab", according to the co-chair of the Maori Council.

The Waitangi Tribunal is due to give an interim report on the issue this week, which could delay the Government's partial sale of state owned assets.

Sir Eddie Durie told TV ONE's Q and A he was fairly sure the tribunal would find that Maori do have proprietary interests in water assets, like natural springs and wetlands.

"We're not talking about water in the general common sense, we're talking about access to particular water resources contained in lakes and the like," he said.

"That has been recognised in the tribunal before, it's been something that has been known of for a very long time."

Durie said Maori communities were established around water, which was the main source of food before cattle and sheep were brought to the country.

"They have these rights because they've had them for all time, this was their property from a long way back," he said.

"It's not just a money grab, it's advancing rights that have been talked about since the 1870s. As far back as then Maori were saying they have certain property rights with regard to certain water bodies, they've never been claiming the exclusive right to water in the country."

Durie said long established rights need to be recognised before wealthy shareholders start to lobby against Maori interests.

He also said where a claim can be recognised, Maori should be compensated if commercial interests profit from the water.

"Where it is feasible to recognise a continuing situation (of ownership), a royalty should be looked at," he said.

In cases where it is "too late" to say whether Maori have a substantial interest, Durie said a compensatory fund should be established to help maintain those communities which had relied on the water in the past.

"I think if you have an asset like a spring which is discreet and set aside for a group, then if someone else is going to use it, they should pay for that use."

Prime Minster John Key has repeatedly said no-one can claim rights to water, and suggested the Government could ignore the findings of the tribunal.

Should that happen Maori leaders are prepared to go to court to defend their rights.

Iwi Leadership Group member Haami Piripi said he was sure the tribunal would rule in their favour and the Government should make a positive response

"With the seabed and foreshore (bill) we had a Government that turned its back on us and that's what really created the big issue," he said.

"With this instance we're hoping the Government doesn't turn its back on it and becomes pro-active, sets up a regime where these rights can be recognised and manifested as some sort of participation in future economic development.

"We want to be part of this country's economy moving forward, we don't want to be alienated and marginalised like we have in the past."

The Waitangi Tribunal has said it will issue an interim report on water rights by August 24, while the Government hoping to start its assets sales programme by the end of the year.