Analysis: The government inquiry into Havelock North’s campylobacteriosis outbreak warned that nearly 800,000 New Zealanders on reticulated supplies are drinking water that is “not demonstrably safe”. Furthermore, more than 80 percent of us consider the state of waterways to be the country’s main environmental concern. With climate change, existing problems will be amplified.
So how proactive will the next government be at protecting drinking water sources and improving the health of waterways?
As part of our survey of political parties, we included questions about nitrogen fertiliser and protecting drinking water sources (as one of the drivers of intensified land use). Survey responses were obtained from all five parties in the current NZ Parliament, with responses received by early July 2023. You can read the full responses by the parties here.
What stood out was the disparate nature of the parties’ responses, which gave very different characterisations of what is driving the country’s water problems.
The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers in New Zealand has increased more than 600 percent since 1990. Along with irrigation and imported feed, this has facilitated the intensification of agriculture. This expansion has put huge pressure on waterways. It has contributed to some communities’ water supplies breaching national drinking water standards for nitrate and greater risks of waterborne disease.
Additionally, in 2016, as a result of contaminated drinking water, Havelock North experienced a campylobacteriosis outbreak; an event that led to an estimated 6000-8000 people becoming ill, 42 people hospitalised, three developing long-term health conditions, and four deaths.
The inquiry into the outbreak found regional councils had been remiss in their duties to protect drinking water sources. It stressed that, “protection of the source of drinking water provides the first, and most significant, barrier against drinking water contamination and illness”.
Our first question to the political parties asked:
“Will your party implement regulations such as ‘sinking lid’ caps on the use of nitrogen fertiliser and revised National Environment Standard for human drinking water sources to clearly delineate source water protection zones?”
We then asked:
“Please expand on what further policies your party will introduce to protect the sources of New Zealand’s drinking water”.
Summary of responses
Highlighted “substantial progress” on implementation of National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM). Referred to the cap on nitrogen fertiliser use (introduced in 2020) and stated fertiliser use had dropped five percent per annum in the past two years as a result of this and because of improvements in industry software. Highlighted behaviour change in regards to intensive winter grazing (an activity with high nitrogen loss to water). Wants to ensure regional councils deliver their regional plans consistent with the NPS-FM. Full policies to come before the election.
Strengthen regulation of nitrogen by implementing a dissolved inorganic nitrogen limit (recommended by the freshwater reforms’ Science and Technical Advisory group) and phasing out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Give effect to Tino Rangatiratanga by supporting hapū and iwi to give effect to Te Mana o te Wai (a central framework for regional plans under the NPS-FM). Wants to ensure Taumata Arowai (the drinking water regulator) has resources to be involved in regional planning. Create a fair system for commercial water allocation that opposes large-scale irrigation projects.
Te Pāti Māori
Highlighted priority of honouring Māori customary, proprietary, and decision-making rights. Stressed that, as kaitiaki, the protection and restoration of drinking water must be led by tangata whenua. Noted that it has been campaigning since 2020 to phase out manufactured nitrogen fertilisers. Highlighted the need to support farmers to transition to “regenerative, organic and value-add” agriculture. Introduced a member’s bill that would prohibit the extraction of freshwater for selling in packaged form.
Replace Three Waters with “Local Water Done Well”. Restore council ownership and control of water infrastructure while improving water quality and ensuring financially stable water services. Did not mention nitrogen fertilisers or drinking water sources. Full policies to come before the election.
Supports a regulatory authority that sets science-based drinking water standards and verifies compliance of those standards by local drinking water infrastructure entities. Protection of local aquifers best dealt with at local level. Did not mention nitrogen fertilisers.
Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori identified land use and agriculture as upstream pressures on water quality. In contrast, National and Act focused on downstream mechanisms to manage water quality problems. National only discussed water services, avoiding comment on nitrogen fertiliser or other land activities. Act focused on drinking water standards as the primary regulatory lever for improved quality drinking water (we highlighted in an earlier Newsroom article drinking water standards have had a limited effect in protecting communities’ water sources). National and Act gave short responses with little detail.
Responses indicate limited understanding of interactions between authorities involved in the protection of water. The Greens highlighted the need for the national drinking water regulator, Taumata Arowai, to be involved in regional decision-making. No other party mentioned the existing drinking water regulator. None gave comment on the National Environmental Standard for human drinking water currently under review.
The Greens and Te Pāti Māori identified the need for tangata whenua to lead decision-making in their rohe. National and Act stressed local decision making, (presumably by councils). Based on Act’s public comments outside our survey, it seems likely it does not support tangata whenua leadership on water. National’s position is less clear on this, and Labour has been publicly supportive of co-governance models.
The lack of comprehensive, cohesive visions from the two main parties for moving to more sustainable, healthy land use is striking. Primary risks to drinking water sources are agricultural pollution and the over-extraction of water for irrigation. Furthermore, Cyclone Gabrielle demonstrated how poor land use can affect water services after heavy rainfall events (eg silt and forestry slash damaging infrastructure). National did not mention land use or farming practices at all. Though Labour did, it appeared focused on incremental changes.
Protecting the quality of water for the health of communities and the natural environment requires an understanding of the interactions between land use, infrastructure, climate change, governance and regulation. Too narrow a focus from the incoming government will mean more risk for communities from waterborne disease and hazardous contaminants in water.
This article was adapted from the Public Health Communication Centre’s Where do the parties stand? Protecting water sources and drinking water quality.