The second stage of the Havelock North water inquiry including scathing remarks about a “leadership vacuum” and “complacency” in the sector.

The report estimates 100,000-plus cases a year of sporadic illness from water contamination. It says 20% of people on town supply are drinking water that is "not demonstrably safe."

It recommends radical and urgent change including:

  1. Mandatory universal treatment of reticulated drinking water
  2. No bore to be classified as “secure” and no new below-ground bore heads
  3. A comprehensive review of NZS 4411 covering of all bores that draw water from any groundwater source intended for drinking
  4. Dedicated, aggregated water suppliers instead of a multiplicity of local councils
  5. An independent drinking water regulator
  6. Changes to the Resource Management Act and National Environmental Standards to protect water supplies as a matter of national interest.

The inquiry says: “the risks to drinking water are increasing. Climate change, extreme weather events, increased intensification of farming, earthquakes, population and urban growth and ageing infrastructure are all increasing the risks.”

Sir Geoffrey Palmer once memorably described New Zealand as “an irredeemably pluvial country.” In other words, we get an awful lot of rain, just not where and when we need it.

New Zealand’s climate is becoming more challenging. Scientists expect wind and rainfall patterns to shift bringing more rain to western regions, with the east becoming drier. Our weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable and more extreme.

This week we’ve also seen headlines like “Napier could run out of water tonight due to 'critically low' reservoir levels”. Large-scale irrigation schemes like the Ruataniwha dam proposal are controversial and contested. Those arguments are well rehearsed. The more fundamental question is, do we have enough clean drinking water?

Drinking water supplies cannot be taken for granted. Managing demand may not be a sufficient solution. Greywater can be recycled and rainwater tanks can be used to water gardens without taking from reticulated networks. Storage reservoirs can be added.

The best water storage occurs naturally under the ground. If our aquifers are compromised by contamination, then the consequence can be serious risks to public health - as the first stage of the inquiry outlined with its finding that contaminated drinking water was the source of the campylobacter bacterium that caused widespread illness in August 2016.

It is highly likely that the cause was heavy rain inundating paddocks, causing contaminated water to enter the aquifer. The water bores were not adequately contained and secure.

There was a systemic failure of governance, and not for the first time.

The inquiry has found that none of the faults, omissions or breaches of standards directly caused the outbreak. However, had all or any of these failures not occurred, a different outcome may have resulted.

These increasingly challenging conditions require what public policy Professor Jonathan Boston calls “anticipatory governance.” Engineers anticipate problems to design solutions founded on simple principles. The problem of providing clean safe drinking water is capable of solution if we all play our part.

This is an important issue for engineering and for New Zealand. We would love to hear your views. Get in touch with our policy advisor Neil Miller