“All New Zealanders deserve safe, reliable and affordable water services that support good health and sustainable environmental outcomes.”
It is a noble sentiment, and features prominently on Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand’s website.
Given this country’s keenness to trade on its clean, green reputation, a high standard of drinking water quality is something New Zealanders should be able to take for granted.
Yet all is not as it seems.
Research by University of Otago research fellow and freshwater expert Marnie Prickett raises concerns that major holes remain in NZ’s drinking water standards and surveillance.
This is despite the Havelock North, in Hawke’s Bay, campylobacter disease outbreak of 2016 that left four people dead and thousands sick. It prompted a ministerial inquiry and the formation of Taumata Arowai, a national body with responsibility for drinking water quality.
Prickett’s report on the health implications of nitrate contamination in drinking water, recently published in the Australian Journal of Water Resources, focused on 2022 Waimate District Council nitrate issues that saw the town’s water supply shut down. Environment Canterbury blamed the spike in nitrate levels on persistently high rainfall, but Prickett found the exceeding of safe nitrate levels had been predicted seven years earlier, before the Hawke’s Bay contamination.
The inquiry into the Havelock North incident found drinking water standards had been inconsistently applied and there had been little responsibility clearly nailed to regional councils.
“As a document, the Hawke’s Bay inquiry is incredibly valuable, with a lot of lessons that its authors acknowledge need to be locked in place sooner than later, otherwise people forget, move on and things will not change for the better,” says Prickett.
Estimates are 800,000 people, predominately living in rural and provincial NZ, are served by potentially hazardous water supplies.
There are plenty of other, less publicised, examples around the country where drinking water is not fit for purpose.
In the tiny South Island town of Waihola, about 40km south of Dunedin, a boil-water notice has been in place since April last year, and the local Clutha District Council has conceded it is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon. There has been plenty of residential development in the area in recent years, putting pressure on water supplies. A new pipeline is due to be installed later this year and should improve the situation, but until then residents are on their own.
The former Labour Government trumpeted Three Waters as the answer to the country’s water woes. It planned to create separate entities that would oversee all water services in various regions. This prompted anger from some quarters and claims of asset grabbing by the government.
The new government announced in December it would repeal the Three Waters legislation early this year and create a new system it says will recognise “the importance of local decision-making and flexibility for communities and councils to determine how their water services will be delivered in future”.
Whatever the answer, many New Zealanders will simply be hoping decisions are finally made so it is once again safe to drink from the tap.