New Zealand drinking water in spotlight

Over the last two weeks there has been a significant crisis in the quality of the drinking water supply in the Hawkes Bay area. The crisis, which began when camphylobacter cases were reported as a result of contaminated water being drunk, has residents in Hawkes Bay towns as well as Napier and Hastings calling for heads to roll. Whilst that might be a bit hasty, it underscores a serious threat to the drinking water of a large number of people.

All up over 4,000 people have been affected by the gastro bug, which became known about on Tuesday when cases of camphylobacter poisoning were announced. At the time it was thought that the cases were relatively isolated and that the source could be tracked down. However on Thursday the number of cases multiplied substantially with over 100 being sick and several hundred saying that they had milder symptoms linked to camphylobacter. The source had not been pinpointed and although initial suspicions fell on a piggery, nothing was found. Water tankers began delivering clean water to schools to ensure children did not fall ill. A second scare involving a water tanker was found to be false. But with people continuing to get sick the need to locate the source became more urgent.

Hawkes Bay has a significant agricultural industry, that includes significant dairying. Because of the large numbers of cows, one possibility is that cows from a herd or herds might have entered a waterway over a prolonged period of time. In this environment the animals tend to defecate and urinate, and a possibility is that bugs from this waste matter may have entered the groundwater and filtered into the water supply.

However it has to be noted that the water crisis in United States city of Flint, which has suffered from a contaminated water supply caused by very high levels of lead, is an ongoing issue more than two years after it first became known. The contamination is caused by aging pipes in the Flint water infrastructure. Estimates of the cost of replacing the old pipes range between U.S.$60 million to over U.S.$1 billion. The issue has become a political topic for Republican and Democrat nominees trying to woo Michigan voters. Attempts to hold someone accountable have thus far failed, despite court action being launched.

In saying that, the legal framework for the supply of drinking water in New Zealand is considerably tighter than in the United States. District Health Boards are responsible for ensuring  that monitoring of drinking water supplies and the publication of the results is carried out. Local councils, when issuing resource consents where proposed activities may come into contact with the drinking water supply are expected to give consideration to how the activity might affect the drinking water. Regardless of this, the ongoing scare in Hawkes Bay, like the one in Flint, Michigan, demands a thorough investigation, the necessary improvements made to stop it happening again and only then – if someone was found to be negligent – should heads roll.


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