In the wake of the Havelock North mass poisoning inquiry, you do have to despair at what the democratic system can throw up — if I can use such an expression at this time.

For example, instead of punishing Lawrence Yule, the mayor of Hastings when 5500 or more of his electors were left clutching their toilet bowls as a result of the failure of the local water supply, they rose from their sick beds and elected him to Parliament as their local representative.

Now we have Dunedin mayor Dave Cull, who succeeded Yule as president of Local Government New Zealand, questioning the recommendations of the Havelock North Drinking Water Inquiry calling for the universal treatment of town water supplies to avoid a repeat of last year's calamity.

Instead of accepting that the only sure way to protect consumers of town water supplies from outbreaks of assorted illnesses, is to treat the water, Cull flusters away about "implementation costs".


He then sticks his head even deeper down a bore hole by arguing that "some communities will be happy with the systems they have and the level of risk that comes with untreated water, and if they are making informed decisions then this should be supported, not overridden, by central government."

Next he'll be suggesting it is more cost-effective to bring in witch doctors to stand over the water borehead and incant spells to drive away the evil spirits as the water heads off along the pipelines.

At times like this, I'm relieved to live in Auckland where the 150-year-old understanding that cholera and other disease can be transmitted in the public water supply, is accepted by our politicians.

Cull, it seems, continues to reject the inquiry's recommendations and follows the line Yule took at the time of the calamity back in August last year. That's when Mayor Yule went on TV and said the cost of chlorinating the water supply was not the issue. "The view was this has been a secure supply for 35 years …" and was therefore safe.

The inquiry report highlights how irresponsibly unscientific this attitude was then, and is now. What's more, those involved should have known that.

In April 2016, the Ministry of Health's 759 "Guideline for Drinking-water Quality Management of New Zealand" warned that "untreated or inadequately treated drinking water contaminated with pathogens presents a significant risk to human health".

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

It said "the overall burden of endemic drinking water-borne gastrointestinal disease has been estimated at 18,000 to 34,000 cases per year" but with much of this sort of illness going unreported, could be higher.

The inquiry says it could be much higher.

Highlighting the Health Department's failure to adequately police the public water supply, the report says the victim rate could be as high as 100,000 a year.

It notes the Ministry reported in 2005 that "approximately 980,000 (24 per cent) of New Zealanders were supplied with drinking water that failed to comply bacteriologically" with its standards, but did nothing to remedy "these abysmal results".

The Dunedin mayor is not alone in brushing aside the scientific realities. Even the Canterbury medical officer of health, Dr Alistair Humphrey says because Christchurch's water comes from deep aquifers, chlorination is not needed.

With dairy herds steadily taking up residence atop these aquifers, this demonstration of Christchurch's love of their untreated artesian bore water, is starting to sound more like an article of faith than science. Especially with earthquakes rumbling away below.

In 2008, a test of multiple shallow bores — down to 15m — in South Canterbury showed, over a three-year period, evidence of campylobacter and E. all.

With as many as 100,000 cases of stomach upsets and worse a year as a result of the public water supply, New Zealand sounds very third world. It's ironic that for tourists, their best chance of accessing "Pure" water comes out of a tap in Auckland and Wellington.

That nearly 800,000 New Zealanders — or 20 per cent of people on town supply — are drinking water that, in the words of the inquiry, is "not demonstrably safe," is scandalous. So is the fact that one in eight of them fall ill as a result.

The Government is offering an action plan before Christmas. Top of this list should be that all public water supplies be chlorinated.