WELLINGTON, March 14 (Xinhua) -- Water campaigners on Tuesday demanded the New Zealand government suspend exports of drinking water in a series of protests around the country.
A 15,000-name petition calling for a moratorium on freshwater exports was being presented to Parliament by Bung the Bore, the group behind the rallies.
"In many parts of our country people are struggling to access clean safe water, yet at the same time billions of liters are being given away to private companies for nothing," Bung the Bore founder Jen Branje said.
Seventy-four bottling plants around the country had permits to take fresh water to bottle and sell overseas, with more consents awaiting approval, she said.
"These bottling companies pay as little as 500 NZ dollars (345 U.S. dollars) to local councils to take billions of liters of this precious resource and consent for this exploitation is often given with no public consultation at all."
The issue gained public traction last year when it was revealed that Ashburton District Council, on the east of the South Island, had started making deals to sell the right to extract 40 billion liters of artesian water to a bottled water company.
"The residents of our town were on water restrictions and our council was going behind their backs to sell off the district's most pure water. We stood up and said this is not right," said Branje.
The deal was shut down by pressure from the public and the work of Bung the Bore.
"We've come to Parliament to demand that it stops until there is acceptable legislation in place to make sure that people and their environment are protected over private profiteering," she said.
However, the government rejected proposals for any extra costs on water exports.
Environment Minister Nick Smith reportedly said in Parliament that 9 million liters of bottled water was exported each year - a fraction of the trillions of liters of water in New Zealand's lakes, rivers and streams.
He also said any charges on bottled water would create anomalies as other users - such as farmers and manufacturers - would have no extra costs.
However, opposition lawmakers said Smith's figures were misleading as they took into account all available freshwater, including floodwater, while drinkable freshwater was scarce.
The opposition New Zealand First party has backed calls for royalties to be imposed on bottled water exports.
"It is economic folly and a slap in the face to New Zealanders for mainly foreign-owned companies to be allowed to export our water and sell it at a profit, when the nation receives nothing in return," New Zealand First spokesperson for primary industries Richard Prosser said.