It was with mixed feelings that I read Health Minister David Clark's announcement about improving drinking water testing. It's pleasing that the serious public health issues caused by the Havelock North contamination event are being taken seriously, but I wonder why, after 5500 people got sick and four died, it has taken over two years to make any progress.
Improved testing, important for compliance, is a step in the right direction, but consumers should be aware this does not improve the quality of water supplies, it just alerts us they have failed. There is no change in the risk to public health around the country.
Those suppliers that are currently complying with the drinking water standards will continue to comply and those that don't still won't. There may be a few suppliers on the edge of compliance whose status will improve, but it is unlikely any improvement in testing will make a real difference to the level of public health risk from drinking water.
In the meantime, battle lines are being drawn over water reform. A white paper published on Tuesday signals significant change is coming. However, we don't know what that change is going to look like.
Within the industry there is much support for reform. As David Cull, president of Local Government NZ and mayor of Dunedin, said, "We accept change is needed – our 20th century service delivery model cannot cope with current and future population and land use pressures."
I doubt any organisation or water professional would disagree, or with the proposal for an independent regulator — one with broad powers to ensure both compliance with the drinking water standards and the accountability of decision makers.
I believe there is also general agreement that the capability and capacity of water suppliers across the country needs to be improved, and that funding for infrastructure needs to be significantly increased.
Given all this agreement, why is there so much angst over water reform? Is it the extent of the reform that is creating division?
On one hand we have the status quo, with Local Government NZ suggesting councils are best placed to provide water (and wastewater services) to their local communities. However, a funding mechanism needs to be sorted out for this to be a realistic option because the necessary improvements will be unaffordable for some communities.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the formation of three to five water suppliers for the whole country as noted in the white paper. So, what are the benefits of larger aggregated bodies? Simply put, larger organisations are more efficient and can afford to attract the right expertise for building and managing water infrastructure.
With aggregated suppliers, cross subsidisation would benefit those areas that are currently unable to afford to reduce public health risk.
Taking an entrenched position on how to implement reform is not what we need right now. We must have all opinions out in the open and have an adult discussion about what is the best way to ensure that all New Zealanders have access to safe drinking water.
What we must not do is take too long over this. It is over two years since the Havelock North incident and nearly a year since the stage 2 report was published.
I fully support the Government's stated approach in the Cabinet paper, but can't we get things moving a little faster? Safe drinking water is a basic human right and as such deserves a much higher priority from our Government than has been demonstrated in the past.
• Iain Rabbitts is a principal process engineer with Lutra Ltd, a specialist water and wastewater process engineering company.