It's almost two years since the alarming outbreak of campylobacter in Havelock North in which more than 5000 people got sick from drinking contaminated water.

Water and our waterways continue to dominate the headlines. There has been the controversy around the environmental impact of the historical use of firefighting foams which find their way into ground water, ongoing concern about dirty rivers that can't be swum in safely and general angst about the cleanliness of our water.

All this talk going on about our waterways also comes with a fair amount of finger pointing at who we think messed them up.

The fact is, we all share our water and we're all more responsible than we think for keeping it clean.


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Think of it like a flatting situation, where you're all responsible for keeping the bathroom and kitchen clean. Some of us really care about our home environment and some don't give a toss and that impacts on all of us.

It's the same with our waterways. No matter whether you're engaged a lot or a little with New Zealand water, the way you care or don't care about it impacts on everyone.

That's because all our waterways are connected, so the dirty water you threw down the drain after you cleaned your paint brush or the suds that trickled down the footpath when you washed your car are all contributing to polluting water.

Water is not just the river that you can no longer swim in, it's the groundwater that feeds it, the surface water, storm water, grey, coastal and waste water – they're all interconnected and the way we treat one will impact on the others.

Water systems refresh themselves over decades and the work we are doing now to monitor and improve our water will take generations to show the benefits.

There's already an incredible amount of really smart science that is being used to monitor and address our water issues.

Take the new technology being developed by ESR science leader Dr Liping Pang, which helps improve drinking water quality by providing water suppliers and water treatment plants with better tools to assess their treatment processes.

This pioneering research is an easy, cheap and accurate way to track groundwater contamination in aquifers.


While our science can help improve things, looking after our water is also about our behaviour toward this vital resource.

Currently in New Zealand there are a lot of Kiwis who care about our environment but a lot less who take care.

We've been taking water for granted for too long. As early as the first European settlers we were throwing waste into the water.

And nowadays I still see people expecting the sea to wash away their dog's poo at the beach - the same sea we swim in and fish in for our kaimoana.

In New Zealand our water is taonga but we take it for granted.

The campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North was an enormous wakeup call for us all.
We have to not only take more care but learn more about looking after our waterways. We have to educate ourselves on how to be better caretakers of our environment – we owe it to our country and to future generations.

And it is not just water safety we also need to think about water security – will there be enough in the future?

At the moment we have plenty of water but climate change could alter that and put some of our most vulnerable communities at risk. How do we adapt to this? These are the questions science can help solve.

At ESR, we're working hard to understand more about our water, to collect and manage the data around it and to manage the health of our water systems.

But we are also working at shifting behaviour to help educate everyone about the value of water and how to care for it.

Science is here to help but the real solution is in our own behaviour.

* Dr Libby Harrison is ESR's Health and Environment general manager.