Ideasroom

Ongoing victims of Havelock North’s water crisis

Three summers after the devastating water devastation that crippled the town of Havelock North, in Hawkes Bay, a researcher looks for the lasting effects on many of those who fell ill.

“It was bullshit. The whole thing was bullshit. And even to this day now it’s still bullshit.”

Those are the words of one of the Havelock North residents struck down by gastroenteritis in the 2016 campylobacter outbreak in the town as a result of contaminated drinking water.

It was sheep shit, not bull, that is thought to have been most likely responsible for the contamination, which led to four people dying, 45 being hospitalised and an estimated 5,500 – a third of the town’s population – falling ill.

But the bullshit comment reflects the ongoing sense of injustice I encountered when I interviewed more than 40 people who lived through the incident and became ill, cared for someone who became ill or bore witness to events.

The interviews – with 21 males and 20 females aged 17 to 84 – were prompted by wanting to know the stories of the people behind the numbers so frequently cited by media and in announcements related to the official inquiry into the contamination.

I heard of intense physical pain and hardship, in many cases lasting long after the outbreak itself. There was anger about how the crisis was handled, scepticism about several aspects of official accounts of it, and feelings of grievance over what is seen as a lack of accountability.

Another reason for the interviews was to develop our understanding of environmental victimisation.

Victims of environmental crime or harm are said to far outweigh those of everyday street crime. It has been calculated that the number of deaths from water pollution each year across the world is up to 30 times higher than those from homicide.

Despite this, scholars have only really begun to develop or imagine what an environmental victimology might look like. This is partly because environmental harm is complicated. For example, it is rarely criminalised, so victims are unlikely to be acknowledged by the criminal justice system. Victims themselves are unlikely to recognise they are victims. There might be multiple impacts to their health and finances from lots of different origins, so it is very difficult to pin down who the offender is.

As a flow-on effect from that, the public are not often exposed to environmental victims, because the media seldom report on them. In cases where there have been clear environmental victims, it is often couched in the language of tragedy, as accidents, or hidden behind sophisticated greenwashing campaigns.

The Havelock North people I interviewed were, on the whole, reluctant to see themselves as victims. It was striking the threshold at which they felt justified to claim victim status. One woman, who had described to me a harrowing 12 months following the contamination, said: “It’s not bad. It’s nothing life or death … Probably one of the least heart-breaking stories.”

Another, one of several people who viewed their suffering as relative to that of others in the community, said: “I wouldn’t say I’m a victim, because I wasn’t in the hospital, I wasn’t at death’s door, I wasn’t trying to look after children as well.”

For some, victimisation required intent to cause harm.

A woman whose children fell sick felt responsible herself for poisoning them, as though her victimisation had spilled over into another unwanted status: that of a kind of co-offender.

Whether or not they regarded themselves as victims, most of the people I interviewed thought they had been ignored, dismissed and silenced.

The World Health Organisation says the majority of people who get a campylobacter infection make a full recovery within 10 days, with only the elderly, the young and people with underlying complicated health conditions likely to experience long-term issues.

I heard a different story. People said it was the worst, with one woman saying there were moments she would have happily died. Recovery was long and slow, including cases of diarrhoea for months, significant weight loss, exhaustion despite long periods of sleep, unpredictable cramping, chronic skin rashes, spleen enlargement and reduced immunity.

Many lost income and had ongoing medical bills. Several noted they or their loved ones were only just beginning to come right at the time they spoke to me – and this was two and a half years after the outbreak.

People questioned why the alarm about the outbreak wasn’t raised earlier and then the form the alarm took, including Facebook posts and an announcement on Hastings District Council website.

“There’s no way on God’s earth you’re going to look at a council website to understand why you’ve got diarrhoea,” said one man, who also asked: “Do I look like a Facebooker?”

In such a community, with a lot of elderly people, relying on social media and other digital communications was inappropriate, people said. There should have been door knocking, telephone calls and drive-by megaphone announcements.

Anger over this was compounded by a sense the community had been left to fend for themselves. “They immediately should have called in the Army or the Salvation Army or someone at least and said to them, ‘We need help, we need medical people here, we need the rest homes looked after and what have you.’ We totally felt we were on our own and that went on for weeks,” said one man.

Afterwards, acknowledgement of the depth of their suffering was particularly important to people. Instead, they said, they felt invisible, with a compensation scheme when it finally came limited to $200,000 in total and subject to what were considered overly strict criteria.

“Quite frankly, I felt so ill that I couldn’t remember all the details of what I would have needed to remember to fill in the form. So what was the point?” said one woman.

As a result of the crisis and subsequent inquiry into it, there have been legislative changes to drinking water regulations, including plans to establish an independent regulator.

But at a community level redress is another matter.

The man who made the bullshit comment can’t work anymore, can’t play rugby with his kids and regularly sees a psychiatrist to help cope with his depression. He is tired. And he has accepted there will be no justice for him and the others.

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