health & science

Havelock North’s legacy: a new regulator

A new water regulator is the next step to address a major public health problem, writes Dileepa Fonseka

New Zealand looks set to get a new water regulator that will have the job of making sure the water we drink is safe.

New legislation will be introduced to Parliament in the coming months establishing an authority dedicated to regulating drinking water. It is expected to become law next year.

Reports on drinking water quality have flooded out of the Government since the Havelock North water crisis in 2016 left four people dead and thousands seriously ill, and exposed a series of flaws in the way our water supply is managed.

Within the pages of those reports positive observations about the state of New Zealand’s water regulations were few and far between.

The Ministry of Health - the main body enforcing compliance with drinking water regulations - hadn’t enforced a single breach of drinking quality standards since 2007. Our drinking water quality was so poor that on average 34,000 people become ill every year from it.

All of that came as less of a surprise when it was also revealed that just five staff at the ministry (two full-time and three part-timers) were responsible for overseeing the nation’s drinking water supplies.

Worse, Havelock North wasn’t even an outlier: New Zealand had 13 waterborne outbreaks in the preceding decade.

ZERO TOLERANCE

The Government’s initial preferred approach was a super “three waters” regulator to regulate drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater together.

It later came around to the idea of a specialised regulator that would largely regulate drinking water quality alone. 

Local Government New Zealand President Dave Cull supported the new agency’s focus remaining “squarely” on public health outcomes.

“As a small council on our own, meeting the new regulations would be more challenging, and potentially costly.”

It was feared the role of super-regulator across all three would be too large a burden for a new regulatory body, especially as the aim of drinking water regulation would be a zero tolerance approach to water contamination.

This is because a level of non-compliance that might be considered small in other fields - ten percent of water suppliers not meeting drinking water safety standards for example - would mean large numbers of people exposed to unsafe drinking water. 

The Havelock North inquiry said drinking water contamination had the potential to affect “extraordinarily large” numbers of people and to cause “extremely serious” harm. 

THE PROBLEM WITH SMALL

The Havelock North inquiry also reported that there was “little understanding amongst the New Zealand public about the number of people who are consuming water that is not demonstrably safe, the large numbers of people who become ill every year, or the burden this places on the country.”

South Wairarapa District Council’s patch contains one of New Zealand’s most recent examples of drinking water quality issues. 

Two 'boil water' notices were issued there this year after E.coli was detected in Martinborough - first in January and later in April. 

Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta says New Zealand's water regulation regime has not kept up with best practice around the world. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

SWDC joined Wellington Water - an organisation which shares water expertise and specialised staff across a broad base of councils in the Wellington region - after the two outbreaks.

Chief Executive of South Wairarapa District Council, Harry Wilson, said the council had joined Wellington Water partly to make its compliance with expected water regulations easier.

“As a small council on our own, meeting the new regulations would be more challenging, and potentially costly.”

When Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta announced the new regulator on Friday she said New Zealanders had every right to expect clean, safe drinking water: “Unfortunately, over many years, our regulatory regime has not kept pace with international best practice.”

South Wairarapa District Council joined Wellington Water after being forced to issue two 'boil notices' this year. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

While local councils will face costs for enforcing drinking water quality as a result of new regulations, when they spread that across all residents that burden will likely be less substantial - especially for larger councils.

A report prepared by engineering firm BECA estimated it would cost councils in Auckland $65 per person served to upgrade water treatment facilities to meet higher water quality standards. For Gisborne the cost would be $1626 per person.

Smaller private networks of water suppliers that have until now to been unregulated by the Government are a bigger issue.

For smaller non-council owned water networks BECA estimated upgrade costs ranging from $377 per person in the Manawatu-Wanganui area to $4530 per person in the Wellington region. 

Cull said over a million New Zealanders drank water from small non-council owned networks that traditionally had “little to no regulatory oversight”. 

"Small [water] supplies are significantly less likely to comply with the standards."

The new regulator will enforce water standards with water suppliers who provide supplies to 25 people or more. 

This will include small private networks in remote rural areas who may struggle to meet the costs of upgrading their water systems. 

But the Havelock North Inquiry also noted the smallest water networks were some of New Zealand’s most unsafe. 

While nearly 90 percent of large suppliers - those who supplied water to over 100 people - complied with drinking water standards in 2015, in that same year only 23.2 percent of small suppliers met those standards, the inquiry found.

Those numbers didn’t include smaller neighbourhood suppliers, whose level of compliance was expected to be worse still:

“Given the trend in the annual reports whereby small supplies are significantly less likely to comply with the standards, it is likely that the compliance rates for neighbourhood supplies are very low.”

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