Wa­ter woes a clear health cri­sis

The Dominion Post - - Opinion -

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.

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