Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Money at source of water woes

Question is not how supply gets toxic but why govt won't pay to keep it safe.
Drinking untreated water, even in "100 per cent pure" New Zealand, is akin to playing Russian roulette. Photo / Peter Bromhead
Drinking untreated water, even in "100 per cent pure" New Zealand, is akin to playing Russian roulette. Photo / Peter Bromhead

'Tap or bottled water?" asked the waiter as we settled out in the sun for Sunday lunch. As we opted for Watercare's bug-free, l'eau de Waikato, I added it to my reasons for living in big city Auckland, not somewhere out in the wops.

Not that Havelock North, a "suburb" of Hastings, would be most people's definition of the wops. Not until now anyway.

With more than 4000 grumpy citizens now demanding answers for their painful gastro afflictions, it comes as little surprise that politicians, both local and central, have bought time by organising rival inquiries. But in practical terms, they'd have been better to invest the tens of thousands of dollars about to be wasted on investigating the obvious on better water treatment for Havelock North and places like it.

The whys and wherefores are already laid out for them online, in the Ministry of Health's 759-page "Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality Management for New Zealand", dated April 2016.

Without trying to pretend I've read every word of this bible on the subject, the message is loud and clear, without the need for an army of QCs.

Drinking untreated water, even in "100 per cent pure" New Zealand, is akin to playing Russian roulette.

"Untreated or inadequately treated drinking water contaminated with pathogens presents a significant risk to human health. In New Zealand, the overall burden of endemic drinking-water-borne gastrointestinal disease has been estimated at 18,000 to 34,000 cases per year." With much of this sort of illness going unreported, the casualty figures could be higher.

We learn "there is a substantial level of faecal contamination of New Zealand freshwaters, including campylobacter, enteroviruses and adenoviruses, even at recreational and water supply abstraction sites."

In 2002, a 15-month survey of 25 river and lake sites - five used for community drinking water supplies - detected pathogenic viruses in 54 per cent of samples and campylobacter, the current Havelock North villain, in 60 per cent.

Prime Minister John Key is fudging the issue with talk of civil or criminal charges.

In 2008, a test of multiple shallow bores (4.6m to 15m deep) in South Canterbury showed the effects of intensive dairying and border-strip irrigation. Over a three-year period, campylobacter and E. coli were detected in all the tested wells. (The Havelock North aquifer is 20m below ground level.) The report added that "luckily, in general, the larger New Zealand drinking-water supplies are well-managed and generally well-sourced".

So why aren't all town supplies treated and monitored? The simple answer is money. The Ministry of Health sponsored two major studies into the cost of upgrading all New Zealand drinking water supplies to a safe standard. The 2001 report estimated costs of between $269 million and $290 million. The 2004 report estimated capital expenditure of $330 million plus annual operating costs of $4.3 million.

There it is. Until local or central government comes up with the cash to fund treatment stations in these small communities, the fall-back position is to extract water from bores which have traditionally been considered safe, cross fingers and regularly test the water.

Unfortunately, routine testing for pathogens is prohibitively expensive. Anyway, there is no screening test "that provides instant identification of the presence of pathogenic organisms in drinking water". Instead, you look for an indicator organism, like E. coli, which "is ubiquitous in faecal matter" to suggest the presence of other harmful bacteria and viruses.

However, these tests take time to process, and as the Havelock North situation has demonstrated, by the time the red flag goes up, half the town is clutching the toilet bowl.

Prime Minister John Key is fudging the issue with talk of civil or criminal charges. Against who? The cows? Or the chief executive of the Health Board for not putting a loud speaker on top of his car on Thursday or Friday morning and cruising the streets warning citizens to boil their water?

That an area the size of Havelock North is allowed to provide untreated drinking water to its citizens, despite all the obvious public health risks, is a political failure, both at local and central government levels.

We don't need an inquiry to tell us that.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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