The highly anticipated final report of the Havelock North drinking water inquiry is due to be released next week and many in the business of providing safe drinking water to New Zealanders are optimistic it will spur much-needed reform across the drinking-water sector.
The Havelock North contamination outbreak was always an event waiting to happen and frighteningly could have occurred at any time over the past 30 years. The first stage of the inquiry, looking at what caused the event, revealed a wide range of failings by the parties charged with the delivery of safe drinking water.
Among the many failings, the inquiry pointed to the dysfunctional relationship between the councils, a regional council that failed to meet its responsibility to act as the guardian of the aquifer and a district council that failed to embrace a high standard of care, particularly in light of a similar, if smaller outbreak in 1998 which should have caused increased vigilance and initiated changes to the supply.
The second stage inquiry report will consider any systemic failings in the industry which may have contributed to the outbreak.
Without pre-empting the findings of an inquiry process which has put the whole system under the microscope, it's clear that Havelock North was at the sharp end of a major system failure and while the relevant councils were implicated in that failure, to date, less attention has been paid to how poor regulation of the water supplier contributed to the outbreak.
The inquiry's first report found that drinking-water assessors employed by the District Health Board had taken a "hands off" approach to applying the drinking-water standards.
Should they have been more assertive in requiring the district council to comply with its legal responsibilities?
Curiously much of that problem goes back decades to the reforms of the fourth Labour Government. In the days of the old Department of Health, regulation of drinking-water supplies was centrally co-ordinated and nationally delivered.
Regional department offices took instruction from head office in an effort to provide a consistent and well-resourced service. It may not have been perfect, but it had a common purpose, provided national leadership and retained accountability to head office.
The reforms changed the department to a ministry with a mainly policy focus and devolved the operational functions to Area Health Boards and then later to District Health Boards. The new ministry contracted out drinking-water and other regulatory services to the new Area Health Boards.
One of the problems with this approach is that drinking-water regulation is not a core business or function for District Health Boards and the small Public Health Units charged with a diverse range of activities, all competing for funding within the cash-strapped organisations.
A number of submitters to the inquiry raised concerns about the lack of technical understanding of drinking–water supply and nationally inconsistent approaches among drinking-water assessors.
The assessors themselves noted difficulties with the structures under which they operate, a serious lack of resourcing, high demands and a lack of technical support. There was agreement at the inquiry about a chronic shortage of assessors with about 34 currently working part-time when it was suggested that at least 45 full-time assessors were required.
So blame for problems should not rest with individual assessors. Instead, the problem lies with the historic structure they find themselves working under, including the difficulty of being employed by a District Health Board but being accountable to the Ministry of Health.
The inquiry also identified a number of problems with the current drinking-water standards, prepared 10 years ago on the basis of what was known at the time. Technology and science have changed considerably since then but the standards have not.
The challenges of ensuring that communities are supplied with safe drinking water have always been a complex and highly specialised business and this is the case now more than ever.
Needless to say, changes are also required to the legislation under which drinking-water assessors work, including changing the opt out all practicable steps proviso to comply with the standards. Surely compliance is mandatory.
Is it time to return to past structures and have a national central drinking-water regulator?
An organisation with staff devoted only to drinking-water regulation that could provide expertise, accountability and leadership to the sector.
The Ministry of Health's latest Annual Report on Drinking Water Quality epitomises the casual approach to safe drinking water in New Zealand. For the 2015-16 year it reveals that 20 per cent of New Zealanders are drinking water from a public supply that does not meet the drinking-water standards. The year prior to that 20.6 per cent of the population were in that category.
Despite that, not one prosecution has been taken out against a supply authority for failing to carry out their responsibility to meet the standards.
Havelock North has shown just what can happen when regulations and standards designed to protect people are not well enforced. In August 2016, 5500 people in Havelock North became ill with campylobacter, 45 were hospitalised with three deaths linked to the outbreak.
This was a calamity that caused considerable personal hardship and grief to many people and tarnished our overseas reputation.
It showed what can happen when the importance of regulations and standards are undervalued and overlooked.
From sitting through weeks of evidence, it is clear that with the inquiry panel asking the right questions and receiving useful answers and information, there is a need for major reform within the drinking-water sector, starting with regulation – and quickly.
Jim Graham is an environmental scientist and Water New Zealand's principal adviser water quality, Noel Roberts is Water New Zealand's technical manager. Both sat through the weeks of evidence presented at the Havelock North drinking-water inquiry. Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.