It may be politically on-trend to bash the Three Waters reforms, but new mayors and councils must work with the Government to find some integrated way to provide New Zealanders clean water and a better environment

Shortly after the results of Auckland’s mayoral race were announced, water started trending on New Zealand’s social media platforms and in local news. It is remarkable that water took centre stage as the most significant election issue for the first time in recent memory of New Zealand elections.

I believe it is a sign of things to come. It’s predicted most future wars internationally will be fought over access to fresh water but for now, let’s keep the focus local for the discussion at hand.

The immediate reaction to Wayne Brown’s victory appeared to be that ‘people have rejected the Three Waters reforms’. The sentiment was echoed by a couple of key politicians from prominent national parties through media interviews.

It may be correct or may not be, but it needs a scientific perspective for the benefit of our population. Sometimes, political spin on real-world issues can obscure the key facts surrounding the issue, and science has a role to play in helping to clear such obscurity.

Whether you agree or disagree with the Government’s proposed implementation of Three Waters reforms, maintaining the status quo is not an option for New Zealanders. Our existing water and wastewater infrastructure is failing us, and we do not have a plan for integrating stormwater management to gain a holistic understanding of the water cycle. One does not have to look further than Auckland to see the evidence.

Two different organisations, albeit sisters, manage Auckland’s drinking water/wastewater (Watercare) and stormwater (Auckland Council). This inherently outdated management design lacks vision for integrated water management practices to safeguard our waterways and provide clean and safe water.

It is unfortunate that we need to have disasters like Havelock North for the Government to act, as if it was not evident from earlier instances nationwide, albeit not covered by the media to the same extent, water/wastewater infrastructure status reports, and frequent stormwater overflows resulting in diluted, untreated sewage encroaching our harbours and freshwaters.

The outbreak of gastroenteritis in Havelock North in August 2016 resulted in several hospitalisations and three possible deaths directly related to drinking water contamination. A developed country should not suffer this fate. What it needs is a clear vision and the desire to show leadership in the water sector to avoid facing similar disasters in the future.

For too long, New Zealand has been looking to Australia, Europe, and the US to provide such leadership. Whether it is regulation on emerging water contaminants, sustainable stormwater management practices, or innovative water/wastewater treatment solutions, we have chosen a conservative, ‘wait and watch’ approach. This attitude has meant there is minimal appetite at a national level to see us stand shoulder-to-shoulder with countries like the Netherlands, which is investing heavily in its water infrastructure.

So it is unsurprising that basic issues such as outdated fluoridation devices, pathogens and heavy metal contamination, and lack of disinfection or complete treatment dominate our drinking water conversations. When it comes to wastewater, most treatment plants in New Zealand still rely on lagoons and other primitive technologies. It should not come as a surprise that many of these treatment plants regularly violate their effluent consents in one of the critical parameters of E Coli, nutrients or organic load, further contaminating our receiving environments. When it comes to surface water, our rivers are among the most polluted in the developed world.

So where should the change begin? First and foremost, we must rethink our self-touted images of being a ‘clean and green’ and ‘water-abundant’ country. These faulty images may serve us well in attracting tourists or selling our products overseas. However, they also create obstacles for the population here to realise that our water and environment are not as clean as they would like us to believe. If you are unwilling to see the problem, you will not desire solutions.

The attitude of ‘don’t go looking for problems’ (the exact words of a former Watercare CEO to us while researching water contaminants in Auckland) is the reason we are not considered leaders in solving today’s water management challenges.

We need to provide adequate resources, even to remote regions of the country, to bring our national water infrastructure on a par with that of the rest of the developed world. Finally, we also need strong community involvement and active engagement in protecting our waterways.

So dear newly elected mayors, by all means, bash the current ‘Three Waters reforms’ and its implementation. However, please do not allow things to return to the status quo: Provide a clear plan to overcome existing challenges in the water sector and future-proof us for water equity, safety, and security.

This is not the time to play politics on such an important and time-sensitive issue. We need consensus among all parties to make changes in our current water management practices. Whether such changes are implemented through ‘Three Waters reform’ or in some other way, New Zealanders deserve ‘cleaner’ water and a ‘greener’ environment.

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