New Zealand's compliance with drinking water standards is poor compared with the UK and European countries, and an independent regulator would assist in improving water quality, the Havelock North water inquiry has heard.
The final stage of hearings into the state of New Zealand's drinking water regime resumed yesterday and turned to considering whether creating one independent water regulator focused solely on drinking water safety would improve current issues with water quality.
International drinking water expert Colin Fricker, who was one of a panel of five drinking water experts, talked about what he had seen overseas.
Where there was an independent regulator, featuring inspectors with the ability to prosecute, compliance was better, he said.
This was the case in the UK, which had a drinking water inspectorate, and as a result some of the best compliance levels in the world.
In New Zealand, transgressions of water quality were 10 times that seen in the UK, which was troubling, Dr Fricker said.
"It's a clear indication that the microbiological quality of water in New Zealand is worse than the UK and other European countries.
"It could be improved dramatically with relatively simple improvements in processes."
Part of that would be the creation of an independent regulator, and the expert panel agreed it was important that such an entity was independent from political influence.
A large number of submissions to the inquiry complained that the enforcement of drinking water standards was not adequate, impeded by a "softly, softly" approach by the Ministry of Health.
Dr Fricker noted that enforcement action had never been taken in New Zealand, and given the level of transgressions the current regime was not working.
"There needs to a firmer policy on ensuring water suppliers take their role responsibly and produce quality water."
Water quality scientist Dan Deere said that if a regulator was seen to be firmer it would make it easier for those wanting to do the right thing.
This view was echoed by water chemistry scientist Chris Nokes who said the current situation was not providing the required results.
"More stick is required."
Environmental scientist James Graham said any such organisation would need a high level of technical competence and understanding of the law as well as confidence in its abilities.
"The head of such an organisation would need to be able to walk into a chief executive or mayor's office and tell them there are issues that need to be sorted and if they're not a compliance order will be issued.
"It's very hard for drinking water assessors working one day a week on drinking water matters for a DHB to do that."
The drinking water assessor (DWA) role also came under the spotlight due to failings related to the Havelock North contamination, with discussion about the qualifications required of DWAs and the effectiveness of their enforcement of drinking water standards.
In addition, it was identified that there was a shortage of drinking water assessors across the country.
The inquiry had asked Mid-Central DHB DWA Peter Wood to assess the extent of the shortage and he said he roughly estimated that 45 more were needed.
Inquiry panel chairman Lyn Stevens QC recommended that the Ministry of Health be alerted to this as soon as possible.