Inquiry exposes water complacency
During the first stage of the inquiry into the Havelock North disaster, a water scientist giving testimony gave a short, sweet summary of how we treat our water. ‘‘I have to say, I’ve never seen drinking water bores that close to sewerage assets before, even in developing countries,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve seen them sometimes relatively close . . . but actual live pressured sewerage assets, literally on the same pad – I’ve never seen that before.’’
He was not talking about a tiny, rural community; he was talking about what he saw in Hastings, a modern city of 70,000 people in Hawke’s Bay.
The inquiry’s final report, released yesterday, is an exhaustive account of the country’s failure to treat its water with respect and a monument to our complacency.
In some countries, you might see armed guards protecting a freshwater reservoir; In New Zealand, we have bores in muddy paddocks and next to septic tanks.
In the scrutiny over New Zealand’s claim of being clean, green and ‘‘pure’’, drinking water has been largely invisible, as we bemoaned our polluted rivers and harbours, and declining biodiversity.
The results of the inquiry should not be shocking. Reports of issues with drinking water, particularly on the smaller, rural supplies dotted around the country, have been numerous and consistent. The shock comes from piecing it all together, and realising the problem was systemic, enabled by a regulator failing to force compliance and local authorities out of their depth.
Early on in the report, it notes that fecal matter entering a New Zealand drinking water supply is a ‘‘common’’ problem, listing some 11 pages of historical outbreaks. In the last major outbreak before Havelock North, which made hundreds in the Canterbury town of Darfield sick, the well being used for the water supply was in a privately-owned paddock where sheep grazed.
At least 700,000 people, and likely many more, are drinking water that cannot be proven to be safe.
The numbers are grim, and they will take the space in the headlines. But that’s not the real story the report tells – it’s about complacency.
While they were amassing evidence for the inquiry, the panel was keeping one eye on the news. It found that in the wake of the Havelock North disaster we did not become more vigilant about drinking water, but less so.
The latest figures showed compliance with bacteria standards nationwide had gone down since Havelock North, not up. After a widely publicised disaster that made a town sick and killed three people, more people became exposed to drinking fecal matter, not less.
Over the course of the investigation, there were 50 events associated with drinking water issues, about one per week, the inquiry noted.
The inquiry found that ‘‘complacency was common within the drinking water supply system’’, and all the experts it consulted had agreed.
Complacency was a major contributor to the disaster in Havelock North. Its recommendations, which are sweeping, are intended to address that – for we met that complacency with more of it.