Don’t be fooled into thinking we have a Drinking Water Authority here in New Zealand – we don’t. Don’t think there’s an overarching expert panel to ensure the water you drink is safe – there isn’t. Don’t think there’s a regulator who has teeth and can prosecute poor performance before there’s an incident – there isn’t. Don’t think that your key water supply decisions, to treat or not to treat, are made by experts – they’re not.

Basically, your key water treatment decisions such as to chlorinate or not, are made by your local body politicians who have no personal accountability for the decisions and little or no knowledge of the risks. The regulation of those key decisions is carried out by an organisation (the Ministry of Health through the DHBs) that is particularly ill-suited to carry out that regulation and by people who have other pressing demands on their time.

So, it was surprising to read in a recent report in Hawke’s Bay Today that ‘Bore 3 would not be reactivated until the infrastructure for the treatment had been constructed, commissioned, tested and approved by the Drinking Water Authority.’ On the face of it, that’s a very sensible way to proceed. Unfortunately there is no such organisation as the Drinking Water Authority – New Zealand simply doesn’t have one.

I think what the reporter was referring to is the Drinking Water Assessor (referred to as the DWA) – an individual with a health protection background, employed by the DHB on behalf of the Ministry of Health. What these people are not, are water treatment ‘authorities’. They are individuals put in positions of huge responsibility with, in most cases, neither the experience of water treatment nor the knowledge. They have to sign off that Councils are ‘taking all practicable steps’ to comply with the Drinking Water Standards for New Zealand. This is part of their overall role with the DHB. It’s not their sole purpose for existence. There are no senior DWAs. You can’t start as a junior DWA, work up to a DWA and then become a senior DWA. The role doesn’t have a career path but is a stepping stone within the DHB to greater things.

I’m not sure there is anything greater from a health point of view than the provision of safe drinking water. Because I’m a specialist water treatment engineer, I know exactly what it takes to ensure a safe and secure supply. I know what different types of treatment look like and how they should be designed, commissioned and tested because I’ve had over 25 years’ experience doing just that. I spend my whole life designing water treatment plants and making them run and I have a team of professionals who help me achieve that.

What concerns me is that the only people who treat the water in Hastings District are the water bottling companies, who are not subject to inspection by the DWA. What this means is that the DWA relies on the paperwork provided by the people who constructed, commissioned and tested the treatment plant. These are the same people who are being regulated. So the DWA trusts the people who have constructed, commissioned and tested the plant to say that they have done it all right and then the DWA ‘approves’ the installation. This doesn’t sound much like regulation or approval to me.

Having said all that, I do believe that everyone in Havelock North is trying to do their best with the tools they have available and that there is a genuine effort to meet the local needs with safe drinking water. The problem is not one of individuals not performing – they are. It is a systematic failure in the provision of drinking water.

The regulators are not ‘authorities’ on drinking water treatment and supply, they’re people who are doing the best they can in an extremely difficult situation with the whole of New Zealand watching them intently.

It’s about time that we had an independent national regulator, whose sole focus was to ensure the security of our drinking water; who had sufficient power to hold decision makers personally liable and could actually assist water suppliers in treatment compliance. An independent regulator who had professional expertise in the area it was regulating would be good.

This thought leadership article by Iain Rabbitts, a water and wastewater manager in our water resources team, is intended to provide you with insights and relevant information on the regulation of water in New Zealand. Our thought leadership articles on topical and specialist issues are designed to present the key points in an easy to digest and interesting manner.

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