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Toxic drinking water shocks 'pure' New Zealand

07 December 2017

Attorney-General David Parker today released the second stage of the government's inquiry into Havelock North Drinking Water, outlining 51 recommendations including legislation rewrites and tougher regulation to deal with a failure to provide safe drinking water to all of the country's population.

Water quality has been a vexed issue for political parties, with the previous administration attempting to find consensus through the Land and Water Forum, while the ruling Labour Party was forced to drop its planned tax for commercial water use by coalition partner NZ First, although they do plan to impose a levy on drinking water exports.

The inquiry was prompted by an outbreak of a water-borne bacterial infection in the town of Havelock North past year that made more than 5,000 residents ill, possibly killing three. In particular, we identified two areas of focus regarding drinking water, including the security of drinking water supply sources.

Since the outbreak last August, multiple E.coli readings have been found in water supplies in Hawke's Bay.

"I think it's clear this report will be concerning to a lot of new Zealanders, it shows the problems we had in Havelock North a lot more widespread than previously thought", he said.

"The industry has demonstrated that it is not capable of itself improving when the standards are not met".

It also pointed out that during the inquiry experts estimated that in addition to mass outbreaks, between 18,000 and 100,000 sporadic cases of waterborne illness occurred each year.

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"While this inquiry looked specifically at drinking water, the issues are systemic across the sector including waste and stormwater services".

There was no compelling evidence that chlorination posed a health risk, compared with the "natural" pathogens found in drinking water, the report said.

The report left some of its most scathing criticisms for the Ministry of Health which it said had an enormous vacuum of leadership, did not properly manage water suppliers, and failed to prosecute shocking levels of non-compliance.

The water was not disinfected with chlorine or UV treatment, so drinkers consumed the bacteria.

Parker said one of the report's recommendations - to set up larger organisations to handle the water supply instead of leaving it to each local authority - would help to reduce costs.

The Government had written to mayors and DHBs around the country, urging them to check water supplies as it urgently considered the inquiry's recommendations, including setting up an independent drinking water regulator. We must do better.

Toxic drinking water shocks 'pure' New Zealand