A damning report on the state of New Zealand’s drinking water has called for mandatory treatment of the country’s water supply - but a battle is looming over the cost of making that a reality. Sam Sachdeva reports.
The previous Government launched a two-stage inquiry into drinking water in September 2016, following an outbreak of gastroenteritis in Havelock North linked to contaminated drinking water which made over 5000 people sick.
A report from the second stage of the inquiry, released on Wednesday, highlighted “a widespread systemic failure” to supply safe drinking water to the country, with 20 per cent of Kiwis supplied water that was not “demonstrably safe” to drink.
It said there were up to 100,000 cases of waterborne illness in New Zealand each year - although some thought the real number could be higher - while there was a degree of complacency from those tasked with managing the water supply system.
The inquiry had received a number of submissions and evidence indicating untreated drinking water was “unacceptably risky in today’s circumstances”, and recommended making it mandatory for drinking water to be treated.
It also recommended the creation of an independent drinking water regulator to monitor supplies around the country and crack down on offenders.
The report estimated the cost of replacing the country’s deteriorating water pipelines, some of which were at risk of collapse, at $2.2 billion.
Councils responsible for water - Parker
Speaking after the report’s release, Attorney-General David Parker said the inquiry had made a clear case for mandatory water treatment.
“They have a view that even if you have a thorough and faultless testing regime, there can be changes to the aquifer...which can quite quickly change the quality of water.”
Parker said mandatory treatment was not as controversial as it used to be, with a number of cities with large populations making the change in the last year.
He acknowledged there would be a cost to mandatory treatment, and said the Government had not yet decided what funding, if any, it would provide for councils.
“Traditionally, providing drinking water has been a primary responsibility of councils and we don't see that as changing, although it is true according to the inquiry that some of the smaller populations if they’re left alone won’t be able to afford to do it, so we’re going to have to work through that.”
Parker said one of the report’s recommendations - to set up larger organisations to handle the water supply instead of leaving it to each local authority - would help to reduce costs.
"This doesn’t have to all be done overnight...this is an affordable problem for New Zealand to overcome.”
He repeatedly made it clear that the Government believed the issue was primarily one for local, rather than central, government.
“The primary duty of delivering clean water goes on the people who are delivering it...every mayor in the land should be reading the report and they should be reinforcing the importance of this report to their councillors and to their chief executives and to their water bodies - that is where the line of responsibility should start.”
However, he acknowledged the inquiry’s findings that the Ministry of Health had “effectively failed New Zealanders” by not doing enough to uphold drinking water standards.
Funding needed - LGNZ
Local Government New Zealand president and Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull was quick to point out the lack of information about how the report’s recommendations around improved infrastructure would be funded.
“There are already challenges for some communities in paying to upgrade and maintain three waters infrastructure, so any conversation about standards needs to be accompanied by a discussion about the costs to communities of meeting those standards, and how these costs can be equitably shared by all users of water services.”
Cull said some communities would be happy with their current water supply and the level of risk from untreated water, and should not be “overridden” by central government if they were making informed decisions.
Non-profit industry group Water New Zealand backed the inquiry’s findings, with chief executive John Pfahlert saying major reforms were needed to improve the country’s drinking water supply.
“This report provides a blueprint for the Government to move forward to ensure that our drinking water meets the needs of what New Zealanders and visitors should expect from a modern 21st century developed world water supply.”
Parker said the Government had not yet decided which of the recommendations it supported and which, if any, it opposed. Health Minister David Clark said he would present a report to Cabinet next week, outlining which changes which could be made now and which would require more planning.