It was always going to be a case of when, not if, a community in New Zealand would be struck down with campylobacter.
Supplying a whole community with untreated water has always been a calculated risk. In many cases the probability of infection occurring is not huge but, as we have seen, the consequences can be dire when the trade-off between risk and consequence doesn't pay off.
Campylobacter infection is not a rare occurrence. While the number of notified cases has almost halved since new drinking water standards were introduced in 2005, there were 6837 cases in 2013.
Likewise, the decision by the Hastings District Council to leave Havelock North's water untreated is not an unusual one.
For instance, Lower Hutt City, which serves about 70,000 residents, does not treat its deep bore water supply.
Nor does Christchurch, with 300,000 residents. It's likely that about a quarter of our national population is drinking untreated tap water.
Councils have many different reasons for adopting this approach.
We've come to expect our water in New Zealand to be pure and coming from, as in the case of Havelock North, underground aquifers, there's an extremely minor risk of contamination from source.
There is also a strong and vociferous opposition in some quarters to putting chemical barriers such as chlorine into public water supplies. Sometimes this opposition is philosophical, sometimes an objection to taste and odour.
But this is a public health issue and one that needs a Government-led discussion on what we can expect from our water-supply authorities and what role the Government needs to play in the supply of safe drinking water.
This placed a huge burden on many councils, especially smaller local authorities with fewer ratepayers' purses to dip into.
In order to help offset the heavy and unfair burden on these smaller councils, the Government set up a Drinking Water Subsidy Scheme when it introduced the Drinking Water Standards in 2005 but it was lamentably underfunded at $10 million a year and many councils missed out as the money ran out.
Both Water New Zealand and Local Government New Zealand have asked the Government to reinstate this subsidy but this time backed by a much more realistic financial backing.
We've suggested about $20 million a year is required on an ongoing basis.
Drinking water quality is an issue of national significance and one that the Government cannot kick down the road for local authorities to pick up without adequate support and backing.
Access to clean, safe drinking water is one of the expectations of living in a first-world nation. It should not be left as a burden to be carried by local authorities alone and, particularly, it should not be an unfair burden for smaller communities.
We need an arms-length examination of the existing drinking water standards, as well as their regulation through the Ministry of Health, district health boards and councils.
As the organisation that represents the water industry, Water New Zealand is looking forward to the independent national inquiry, one that will look at not only what went wrong this week but also the systemic issues that led to the crisis and the role of both central and local government in the supply, funding and treatment of public water.
- John Pfahlert is chief executive of Water New Zealand.
- Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org