New Zealand: Water, water everywhere - but not a drop to drink

Following the August 2016 outbreak of campylobacteriosis in Havelock North, the Government established an inquiry to investigate and report on the outbreak. The Stage One Report was released on 8 May 2017 and identified what happened, the cause of the outbreak and provided an assessment of the people and agencies responsible for providing safe drinking water to Havelock North.

The Stage Two Report was released last week on 6 December 2017 and outlines the nationwide risks involved with the current drinking water supply systems. The Inquiry's Report is wide reaching and makes significant recommendations on legal and regulatory changes necessary to prevent and minimize similar events from occurring. Further, there are numerous operational practice changes recommended in relation to the monitoring, testing and the management of water supplies for safer drinking water. The recommendations in the Report are not binding but will be highly influential as they respond to the risks associated with continuing under the current regime.

The Inquiry based its recommendations on the following principles (adapted from the Australian Drinking guidelines):

  1. There should be a high standard of care and diligence, as there are in other services that have risk of causing sickness, injury or death on a large scale.
  2. Protection of the source of water is of paramount importance.
  3. There must be multiple barriers protecting water against contamination.
  4. Change precedes contamination. This means there is higher risk of contamination after periods of change, including extreme natural events such as earthquakes, floods, snowfalls.
  5. Suppliers must take responsibility for the safety of drinking water.
  6. A preventative risk management approach must be applied.

Some recommendations of interest made by the Inquiry are summarised in this article. The full report (and recommendations) can be found here:

Mandate the treatment of drinking water
The Inquiry has found that the risks of untreated drinking water are too high to allow for untreated water throughout New Zealand. In reference to the principles above, systems need multiple robust barriers and treatment is a fundamental measure that needs to be taken. The Report has recommended that appropriate and effective treatment is legislated nationally, through Drinking-water Standards NZ 2005 (DWSNZ) or through statute. Provision should be made for exemptions to mandatory treatment only in very limited circumstances.

This aspect of the recommendations has already received considerable attention and it will be interesting to see what the new Government proposes in relation to the recommendation.

Amend the RMA to expressly recognise drinking water source protection
The Report recommends under the principle of protecting source water, that section 6 and section 30 of the RMA are urgently amended to protect the sources of drinking water. Amendment to section 6 is recommended to recognise the protection and management of drinking water sources as a matter of national importance. This is to sharpen the focus of policy makers, as Part 2 of the RMA guides the development of national, regional and district planning documents.

An amendment to section 30 is also recommended to expressly recognise the protection and management of drinking water sources as a specific function of regional councils. The Inquiry has recommended that the word 'protection' in this case should encompass the identification and understanding of the risks to drinking water sources and the addressing of those risks. A review of the National Environmental Standards for Sources of Human Drinking Water is also recommended.

These changes will likely provide further tools for regional councils in relation to managing water quality, but also in relation to the complex issues associated with managing land use impacts on sources of drinking water.

Improve the compliance and accountability of drinking water providers
The current regulation for drinking water standards is the DWSNZ. The Inquiry found there are exceptionally low levels of compliance with the DWSNZ. Data from the annual compliance reports between 2009 and 2016 show nationally there are 759,000 people who are supplied water that is not demonstrably safe to drink (20 percent of those suppliers serving 101 or more people).

There are a number of recommendations to improve compliance: the Director General of the Ministry of Health has been recommended to put into place a clear and effective enforcement policy including the issuing of compliance orders to urgently improve compliance levels by suppliers. Further recommendations include a review of the DWSNZ, a review of water safety plans held by all water suppliers and a licencing and qualification system for drinking water suppliers and operators.

Introduce a drinking water regulator and joint working groups
The Inquiry found that due to the involvement of multiple health and environmental agencies in the regulation of drinking water, there are issues of collaboration and cooperation in management that are compromising the safety of drinking water.

In response to this, the Report recommends a single drinking water regulator be established . The regulator should be independent of the Ministry of Health and have overarching responsibility for licensing and qualification of water suppliers, standards and practice, and monitoring, compliance and enforcement.

Further, the Report encourages DHBs to establish joint working groups comprised of relevant agencies (regional councils, district councils and other water suppliers and district health boards) to be responsible for the oversight of drinking water safety in their respective regions. These entities would coordinate directly with the drinking water regulator. We expect that the working groups could be modelled on a voluntary joint working group that was established in Canterbury between relevant agencies following the Havelock North outbreak.

A single dedicated drinking water supplier
Another solution offered in response to the deficiencies in drinking water supplies is to establish aggregated larger dedicated water suppliers rather than having numerous smaller suppliers. This would enable single focus and dedicated resources enhancing the safety and robustness of drinking water supplies.

These are just some of the urgent changes that the Inquiry recommends. Further recommendations, including long term changes, are detailed in the Report. The Minister of Health, the Hon Dr David Clark is seeking urgent advice to put to Cabinet before Christmas on the action that Government will take in response to the Report.

It will be interesting to see which of the recommendations are prioritised and how the Government proposes to address the inevitable issues associated with the multi-agency responsibilities for the provision of drinking water in New Zealand. Watch this space.

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