There’s a chorus of calls for urgent government action following the release of a damning second report by the Havelock North Drinking Water Inquiry.
The inquiry found a serious lack of compliance with drinking water standards across New Zealand, resulting in over 700,000 New Zealanders being exposed to unsafe drinking water.
“The report is hard-hitting in identifying a major failure of leadership by the Ministry of Health, says Professor of Public Health at the University of Otago Michael Baker
“The deficiencies identified . . . include lack of national leadership, loss of technical capacity, outmoded legislation, inadequate resources, poor enforcement, insufficient monitoring and lack of coordination.”
It’s a call for action endorsed by the chief executive of Infrastructure New Zealand Stephen Selwood
“Failures at all levels, from the legislation to governance and weak institutional capability, have contributed to a drinking water system which is dangerous, inefficient and unacceptable.
“Total reform of the water sector is required and the inquiry’s recommendations should be implemented in full.
Chief executive of Water New Zealand John Pfahlert also urges the government to implement the recommendations of the inquiry without delay.
“Unless there are significant changes to the way drinking water is regulated, there is a serious risk of another contamination outbreak on the scale of Havelock North,” he says.
“This report provides a blue print 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.”
In particular, he says, the report highlights an urgent need for an independent water regulator be established with the power and ability to enforce drinking water standards.
Mr Selwood believes water suppliers across New Zealand are too small, under-resourced and conflicted in their provision of water services.
“Water regulation has been woefully weak, allowing institutional acceptance of service failure.
“While this inquiry looked specifically at drinking water, the issues are systemic across the sector including waste and stormwater services,” he says.
“A small number of benchmarked water service providers, delivering both water supply, waste and stormwater services should be established.
“Larger entities will generate the economies of scale needed to achieve drinking water and environmental standards which are currently being ignored, often because of the cost impact to councils.
“The Ministry of Health needs to urgently implement the inquiry’s short-term recommendations and an independent water regulator must be established as the first step towards major reform of water service governance and delivery in New Zealand, says Mr Selwood
Professor Baker says we should be cautious about the report’s recommendation to establish a dedicated drinking water regulator with the implication that this should be separate from the Ministry of Health.
“As noted in this report, the ‘The fundamental purpose and responsibility of the Ministry of Health is to improve, promote, and protect public health (s 3A of the Health Act)’. Most of us rightfully expect the Ministry to be the lead agency in doing just this,” he says.
“What we have seen over a period of many years is a steady erosion and fragmentation of this national public health function to the point that it is under serious threat.
“Many New Zealanders would probably be surprised to know that responsibility for food safety, health and safety in the workplace, many aspects of immunisation and even health promotion have been moved out of the Ministry of Health.
“If responsibility for safety of the water supply is also lost, that will further weaken the small core public health capacity remaining in the Ministry,” says Professor Baker.
Mr Pfahlert says we cannot afford to have another water contamination event such as occurred in Havelock North.
“It has . . . tarnished our international reputation . . . experts from around the world are now watching very closely to see how we respond to these findings.
He says the inquiry has addressed all the key issues that have been concerning many in the sector for some time.
“It has produced a very thorough and well considered report. The inquiry asked the right questions and has come up with the right answers.
“We would urge that the Government implement the recommendations without delay because, if it does not, there is a serious risk of another similar contamination outbreak,” says Mr Pfahlert.
Read the full report here