The Health Ministry and local authorities are being slammed for "widespread systemic failure" in their duty to ensure safe drinking water, with a new report showing at least 721,000 New Zealanders and countless tourists are drinking water that may not be safe.
The second stage of a Government inquiry was released today into the health crisis in Havelock North, which saw more than a third of the town's 15,000 people become sick from contaminated drinking water.
The inquiry was scathing on the suppliers - usually the local authority, monitored by the Health Ministry - for not ensuring safe drinking water. While water in Auckland and Wellington was safe to drink, elsewhere at least 721,000 Kiwis were drinking water that was "not demonstrably safe".
"These findings point to a widespread systemic failure among water suppliers to
meet the high standards required for the supply of safe drinking water to the public.
"The industry has demonstrated that it is not capable of itself improving when the
standards are not met. Neither has the Ministry of Health ... shown an
ability to call the industry to account."
Accountability tools were "ineffective".
"There is currently no adequate or effective enforcement of the statutory
obligations on water suppliers."
Mayors nationwide told to check water supplies
The Government has written to mayors and DHBs around the country, urging them to check water supplies as it urgently considers the inquiry's recommendations, including setting up an independent drinking water regulator.
The inquiry viewed the latest data for 2016-17, which is not due to be released until 2018.
"Some 721,000 New Zealanders continue to receive drinking water from reticulated supplies that is not demonstrably safe. This figure is likely to be a significant underestimate."
Hundreds of thousands more may be exposed considering that the numbers do not include about 625,000 New Zealanders that drink water from self-suppliers or temporary suppliers, or the deluge of tourists that visit non-compliant townships.
Punakaiki, for example, sees 500,000 tourists a year and is a permanent "boil water" notice.
The Director-General of Health Chai Chuah told the inquiry that the figures were "very troubling", while the ministry's leader of the drinking water team Sally Gilbert said that the figures "raise flags" and that the ministry needed to "strengthen [its] advice in this area".
"The Inquiry considers such a limp response does not go nearly far enough ... Moreover, there has been no marked improvement in the number of suppliers supplying safe drinking water throughout the 2009-2016 period," despite a law change in 2007 that was considered international best practice.
Improvement in compliance has also been negligible since the outbreak in Havelock North.
"Twenty-seven supplies failed entirely to take any remedial action after a transgression. In the aftermath of the bacteriological outbreak in Havelock North, these failures to respond effectively to transgressions or to monitor adequately are surprising and unacceptable."
The inquiry recommends a major overhaul of the system including 51 recommendations, including the universal treatment of drinking water, establishing a new independent drinking water regulator, and stronger laws and regulations to enforce standards.
Health Minister David Clark will bring recommendations to Cabinet before Christmas.
The inquiry sheds new light on Chuah's announcement this week that he will resign halfway into his five-year term. Today's report followed a State Services Commission report that also criticised the Health Ministry, and the establishment of an expert Ministerial Advisory Group to Clark, who said that "all is not well" at the ministry.
"All New Zealanders should expect to have access to clean drinking water and, following this report, some will ask whether their water is safe," Clark said in a statement.
"I am expecting the Ministry of Health to take the report's findings very seriously."
Attorney-General David Parker said the report made for "sobering reading", noting that New Zealanders' drinking water was "often inadequate".
"Regulation and enforcement have been poor. We must do better."
The inquiry noted that outbreaks can have significantly more dire consequences than what happened in Havelock North.
"Very high standards of care are required for providers of services that can make people sick or injure or kill them. The supply of drinking water is no different."
"It is the severe nature of the impacts to the public, and the speed of distribution, that make the risks associated with waterborne disease so concerning. Consequently, the risks simply cannot be ignored or downplayed."
What to do:
• Concerned people on a town supply should contact the local supplier, usually the local council.
• For people on self-supplies, such as roof water, information can be found here.
• General information can be found here.
• If you're in any doubt, boil your water before drinking.