The recent call for chlorination of all water supplies marks a sad landmark in New Zealand's environmental history. It is the latest in a series of related markers of freshwater pollution. We have reached the point where three quarters of our native freshwater fish species hit the threatened list and passed the point where more than half our rivers became unswimmable.

This chlorinate-everything call is one more flag we have moved ever further from the clean and green New Zealand we espouse. It takes us farther from the country I grew up in, believing I was incredibly lucky to be born in the cleanest country on the globe, toward a country trashed just like the rest.

The New Zealand where we must swim in and drink chlorinated water is an unwelcome and unnecessary development revealing a complete failure by successive governments and I hope its advent does not go unchallenged.

I am not opposing the chlorination of drinking water, what I am opposing is that we let it get to the stage that water needs this treatment. I am angry at this ambulance at the bottom of the cliff response. The fence at the top is the protection of our drinking water catchments.


It is what we do in catchments at a landscape scale that leads to water contamination. In urban areas, it is also what we do not do when we fail to maintain sewage infrastructure.

The crucial point that often gets lost in arguments around protecting catchments is that it is a win-win for farmers as well as urban and rural communities. Looking after catchments has many benefits, from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to tourism gains and making rivers swimmable again.

It is the faecal oral pathway for pathogens that is the problem, thus, the more untreated waste from large animals (including humans) in the catchment the higher the potential for problems.

The Havelock North water crisis emphasised for most New Zealanders the crucial value of trustworthy, safe, clean water coming out of our taps. Until recently this was something we blithely took for granted.

Havelock North and its resulting enquiry led to Water New Zealand calling for chlorination of all water supplies with almost no mention, at least in the media, that contamination has been happening nationally at a smaller scale for a few decades, and no mention of the causes.

In the Havelock case, it was thought to be localised to the area close to the bore shaft, in most others it is a general contamination of shallow bore water by faecal infiltration, especially in intensively farmed areas with porous soils like rural Canterbury.

The drinking water crises on top of many drinking water scares all around New Zealand in recent decades has undoubtedly been a boon for water bottlers and retailers. No doubt, it is also great for water chlorinating businesses and public swimming pools patronage must go up as more rivers become unswimmable.

A select few business, many of them members of Water New Zealand, are flourishing from the warnings on drinking water safety and the proliferation of warning signs at our rivers and beaches. This highlights the stupidity of our economic system, where causing the problem and providing a solution that we must pay for is good for business and GDP.


The pressure to buy bottled water driven by tap water taste or fear of contamination exposes another glaring injustice. That is, the water we buy in plastic bottles is the same water we generously gave to the corporates who bottle it to sell back to us.

In most cases we give it to them for 35 years for the token price of processing their consent application, and they sell it back to us at a price more expensive than petrol and thus, unaffordable for many.

So we give away the best water - from the deep bores, not yet contaminated - and the domestic and private water supplies are mostly from shallower groundwater, the first places to show contamination from what we do on the land.

Think about this the next hot day you take your children swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool, because your beach or river is no longer safe to swim for swimming.

Think about it while you sit there watching the kids while sipping on chlorinated water from the tap, or water from a plastic bottle, unchlorinated because the corporation that sold it to you got it from our clean deep water aquifers for free.

Maybe you will munch on a Tip-Top icecream that came from Spain.
Then maybe you will question the total failure of successive governments, central and regional, to protect our fresh waters and maybe get angry enough to demand change?


* Dr Mike Joy is a senior lecturer in environmental science at Massey University, Palmerston North.