In­quiry ex­poses wa­ter com­pla­cency

The Press - - Front Page - CHAR­LIE MITCHELL

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.