Funding of safe drinking water is not expensive. Not when compared to the contamination of water at Havelock North which made 5,500 people sick and possibly killed three others.
It’s especially not expensive when we think on a national level. It’s a national problem, which should be approached nationally - not parochially and on a scheme by scheme basis. We need to stop worrying about how the 250 residents of Punakaiki are going to provide infrastructure for 500,000 visitors and start thinking how New Zealand can pay for it.
Stage two report
The real news of the Havelock North Stage 2 Report is that the authors think that far more than 700,000 New Zealanders are getting water that is not demonstrably safe to drink.
The report lays out the reasons for this clearly and places a large portion of the blame at the Ministry of Health’s door. It calls for mandatory treatment and provision of a residual disinfectant scheme, which means that the authors think a lot of “compliant” schemes are not safe.
In the latest Register of Drinking Water Supplies, Havelock North is listed as being fully compliant with the drinking water standards. It is absurd that a supply that made thousands of people sick could be compliant with any standard. The part of the Standard used for Havelock North’s compliance is exactly the same as that for Christchurch. If we add in Christchurch’s population to the over 700,000, we end up with over a million people.
The Report is critical of the resourcing and competence of the Ministry of Health and its regulation. If we cannot trust the regulation, how do we believe the 700,000 number in the first place? Compliance with the standard does not mean that you have safe drinking water.
The Stage 2 Report addresses the problem of small communities being unable to fund new water infrastructure by clearly calling for larger single purpose entities – water companies basically. Organisations which know what they are doing and have the customer base to cross subsidise from large communities to smaller, less dense areas.
Over 50% of New Zealanders live in five cities – Greater Auckland, Greater Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton and Dunedin -with a third of the entire population in Auckland. The number and size of supplies that those cities fund must be proportional to the ability to pay. Whichever area gets Auckland gets a huge advantage.
Another problem is political expediency. If the Mayor of Christchurch, Lianne Dalziel didn’t fight against the chlorination of Christchurch’s water, she would possibly lose the next election. However, this is not a good reason for risking the health of over 300,000 people.
So the Report’s recommendation for an independent regulator that takes these decisions away from local body politics is a great solution. It keeps politics out of the critical role of protecting the health of those most at risk, the elderly, the infirm and the very young.
The new Health Minister, David Clark, is in a position to leave a lasting legacy in New Zealand by leading these changes. Let’s see if the mandate for change this Coalition Government claims involves leaving a lasting legacy in drinking water.
Iain Rabbitts is a water treatment expert at Harrison Grierson. He has over 25 years' experience with the design, commissioning and testing of water treatment plants.
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