Science – Water quality future

New Zealand, despite being counted as a wealthy first world country, has seriously poor and fragmented water quality management. This failure is demonstrated clearly in quantitative comparisons of regional water quality measures of NZ compared with those for regional centres in the UK. These benchmarks indicate that Auckland and NZ regional water quality measures are about 70% below counties such as Yorkshire and are much poorer than all UK centres examined in that study. It is not surprising, therefore, that NZ experiences major public health crises arising from this failure. These facts have been included in a report released in June last year, titled Transforming the System for Delivering Three Waters Services: A Summary of Proposals.

A panel of leading NZ medical scientists in the journal *Public Health Expert (July 2022) have reviewed the nature of those national public health problems associated with poor water quality. This review summarises the 2016 case history of Havelock North, which experienced a campylobacter outbreak that made most of the 8000 population of the town sick, with 58 hospitalisations and four deaths. This outbreak was attributed by a government inquiry to serious flaws in the NZ regulatory system for drinking water. It is conservatively estimated that about 34,000 people get sick as a result of drinking water in NZ each year. From 2009 to 2016, 96% of all bacterial exceedances came from small population supplies. It is estimated that small or rural supplies will require a 13-fold increase in the current water charges to meet safe future needs. The review gives two key issues that need to be considered in resolving these water quality problems. Firstly, the current approach to water services is far from adequate to protect public health and, secondly, individual councils cannot afford to support the necessary upgrades in water services without major rates increases.

The issue of managing the massive cost of major upgrading is tied up with scale. Larger scale, according to the head of water management in Scotland, which has a similar population to NZ, is the best way that major essential infrastructural and human costs can be aligned, shared and so minimised.

Larger scale ensures that the improvements will be affordable to and accessible by the smaller communities and rural towns.

Water New Zealand has estimates that the water sector will require an additional 6000 to 9000 skilled workers over the next 30 years if safe water quality standards are to be met. It is unrealistic and impractical to expect that each of the 67 councils will be able to recruit the professional hydrologists, engineers, spatial data specialists and public health specialists necessary to make the local transformation to safe water supply. The aging plant and pipe upgrading costs have been estimated to be up to $185 billion over the next 40 years. This enormous economic burden is obviously beyond the capacity of smaller councils and communities. Increased scale makes this transformation accessible to small communities.

The Government has stated that it is willing to consider changes to improve water reforms after a coalition of mayors proposed an alternative approach to the ownership and governance of the new regional water organisations. It is to be hoped that a national consensus is reached that ensures future generations, especially those in the small rural communities, will have access to safe and affordable drinking water.