Fresh water in New Zealand

This page outlines the importance of fresh water in New Zealand and the need for careful management of our freshwater resources.

Importance of fresh water

Fresh water is one of New Zealand’s most valuable natural assets. Our rivers, streams and lakes sustain natural ecosystems that are home to many of New Zealand’s native species. They provide us with a safe drinking water supply and support a wide range of recreational activities such as fishing, swimming and boating.

New Zealand has 425,000km of rivers and streams.

Source: MFE 2007
  • 4,000+ lakes
  • 200+ aquifers

Fresh water is also a vital part of the New Zealand economy. It is used to irrigate crops and pastures, dispose of or dilute trade wastes and sewage, produce hydro-electric energy and makes New Zealand a unique and attractive place to live and visit.

Many jobs rely on water.

  • 45,000 employed in dairy industry
  • 50,000 employed in horticulture
  • 110,000 employed in tourism
Source: Industry 2014 and Statistics NZ 2013


For Māori, fresh water is a taonga, essential to life and identity. Māori have cultural, historical and spiritual links with many of the country’s springs, wetlands, rivers, hot pools and lakes. This special relationship with water is recognised under the Treaty of Waitangi. Māori also value having healthy water bodies for mahinga kai (customary food and resource gathering).

Why we need to manage fresh water

By international standards fresh water in New Zealand is both abundant and clean.

New Zealand has plentiful fresh water. We get 145 million litres per person per year.

  • Canada - 82 million litres
  • Australia - 22 million litres
  • United States - 9 million litres
  • China - 2 million litres
  • United Kingdom - 2 million litres
Source: Statistics NZ 2011, World Bank 2013


However, economic activities and a growing population are putting pressure on our freshwater resources. These pressures combined with current trends in climate change reinforce the need for careful management to protect fresh water in New Zealand. As a result, water quality and availability vary considerably. This has implications for aquatic life, the supply of drinking water, economic activities, cultural values and water-based recreation.

Water is not always where we need it, when we need it.

We need to manage our water carefully because in some places we are approaching limits to the amount of water we have available to use.

Source: Aqualinc 2010 DoC 2010