Water woes a clear health crisis
Clean drinking water is a basic expectation in a prosperous, first-world country like New Zealand. This makes it astonishing that as many as one in five of us could get sick from the simple act of drinking from the tap.
The news came in the second of two government inquiries into the 2016 Havelock North gastro outbreak that was linked to four deaths. While the first report covered the failure of local government and authorities, the second is broader and warns of widespread complacency.
It painted a picture of district councils which are inept or out of their depth and a Ministry of Health that has lacked leadership and been slow to respond. Responsibility for water quality is devolved to local authorities but this report suggests more central control and oversight are needed.
Complacency, apathy and even naivete have become familiar themes. We saw them in the aftermath of the Pike River disaster and the CTV building collapse, when no one was held accountable for numerous avoidable deaths. We pride ourselves on a casual, common sense, hands-off approach and are quick to see any government interference as the ‘‘nanny state’’ at work, but our Kiwi complacency is starting to cost lives.
The report says that 759,000 New Zealanders may be at risk from drinking water that is ‘‘not demonstrably safe’’. Of that number, there are 92,000 people at risk of bacterial infection, 681,000 people at risk of protozoal infection and 59,000 people at risk from the long-term effects of exposure to chemicals through their water supply.
There is no avoiding the fact that these numbers describe a health crisis. While drinking water is safe in Auckland and Wellington, there have been water scares in Christchurch, Dunedin and other smaller centres.
The figure of one in five may even be an understatement, as it does not include the more than 600,000 people who drink water from self-suppliers or temporary suppliers, or the tourists who visit places like Punakaiki on the South Island’s West Coast, which is under a permanent ‘‘boil water’’ notice.
As if to ram the point home, it was announced that government agencies are investigating potential water contamination around Ohakea airbase in Manawatu¯ and Woodbourne airbase in Marlborough. The news came just a day after the release of the second Havelock North report.
Further south, residents of Temuka are being reassured that water contaminated with asbestos is safe to drink. Napier’s high-profile water problems have included a recent outbreak of E. coli bacteria.
During the investigation into the Havelock North crisis, there were another 50 events connected with drinking water issues, as the inquiry noted wryly. That works out to one per week.
There is no longer such a thing as an isolated example. Every regional issue is a symptom of a systemic problem. Environment Minister David Parker and Health Minister David Clark were quick to identify it as one of the unpleasant surprises left by a departing government that they say sat on the problem for at least five years.
The time for inaction is over. A politically polarising discussion about water treatment and government control is sure to follow. Let it flow.
Every regional issue is a symptom of a systemic problem.