Water is becoming a hot issue for our Government. Up and down the country I have been listening to people and talking a lot about what we are going to do with what is called our ‘three waters’, drinking water, wastewater and stormwater.
I’ve also just returned from a week-long fact-finding trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland looking at how those countries handle their water.
To be fair they had to tackle reform much earlier than us. They had to because of water standards that were imposed on them by the EU. Now they have stronger regulation, well-funded services, safer drinking water and better environmental protections than we have here. The solutions were different –in England, they have a privatised waters system while in Scotland and Ireland they are publicly owned. In all three they joined up services to get the benefits of scale. I have already made it clear that whatever we do here, it must be right for our circumstances and our communities. My one bottom line is that existing water supplies will remain in public hands.
So why all the fuss? Why are we so worked up about water standards? It can be summed up in two words: Havelock North.
In August 2016, campylobacter bugs got into the water supply for the town. Five thousand people became ill and four people are thought to have died from associated causes. A number of people are still off work because they have Guillain-Barre Syndrome as a result of the infection.
There was an official inquiry into this disaster and the report says we can and must do better. Alongside this, I directed officials to continue working on broader aspects of our ‘three waters’ as part of a wide-ranging review. Earlier this month, as a start, the Government introduced legislation to allow for changes to the drinking water standards to be made more quickly. In October we plan to have some proposals and options to take to cabinet to make our water supplies even safer.
Almost every day there is news from somewhere around the country about raw sewage in the rivers, on the beaches, on school playgrounds after flooding, boil water notices, an outbreak of illness related to water-borne bugs, contaminated bores and so on.
Most councils have been good stewards of our water. But emerging challenges are testing the ability of councils, especially some smaller rural and provincial ones, to meet standards and service levels. They face these challenges in the face of declining populations, high tourism demand, ageing infrastructure and climate change-related impacts.
This task will be huge – and very costly. The best estimate that we have is that it will cost about $547 million to upgrade treatment plants to make our drinking water safe. Making sure treated wastewater no longer pollutes our rivers, streams and beaches will cost several billion more.
It is critical that all of us are engaged in this discussion about our water. This will mean having a conversation across the motu on the benefits of regulating our services, and on the different options for organising supply so our communities can afford the bills for safe, clean water.