In the 1950s, supplying drinking water was simple: find your cleanest source of water and add chlorine.

But new discoveries over the past seven decades have made it much more complicated and a lot more costly.

“We’ve learned about a whole lot of new contaminants in water supplies, we’ve learned a whole lot about what the human body can tolerate,” says Jim Graham, principal adviser on drinking water at Taumata Arowai, the new water regulator.

“We’ve developed a whole lot of new technologies to deal with those problems, so water treatment has become a lot more expensive. It’s changed, and I think water suppliers just haven’t kept up with the increasing amount of spending that’s needed.”

In Queenstown, the spending that’s needed to fix its drinking water is estimated to be $30 million and locals face months of boiling their water before it is made safe. In the latest update on the cryptosporidium outbreak, Te Whatu Ora says there are 35 confirmed cases of cryptosporidium, eight probables and seven under investigation. A source of infection is yet to be found. 

The Otago resort town is not alone with its boil water notice.

“The number of temporary boil water notices [issued] every year is hundreds,” says former Newsroom journalist Nikki Mandow, who now works at Auckland University. She points out that the smaller, cash-strapped water suppliers are disproportionately affected.

“Recent research tells us that if you live in a city or a large town, you’ve got an 80 percent chance of having one of these protozoa barriers in place on your water supply. If you live in a small place, you have a 33 percent chance of having a protozoa barrier on your water supply and that’s purely because these are big bits of kit that cost lots of money, and if you only have a few ratepayers, how are you going to afford to pay for them?”

Mandow has written numerous articles on Three Waters (now re-packaged as Affordable Water) and as a result of her research she’s firmly in favour of water reform. She explains to The Detail the three steps in the reform process, two of which are already in place – the regulator Taumata Arowai, and the Commerce Commission which monitors spending on water supplies.

But the third, most contentious step, which creates 10 new entities by combining the existing 67, may not survive the election because National does not back it.

Mandow says the new entities would more easily be able to raise the millions of dollars needed to bring water supplies up to scratch.

“If it doesn’t survive the election we’re left in this situation where we’ve got the same problem as we have now and I would put money on the fact that Queenstown is going to happen again,” she says.

Jim Graham tells The Detail that news of Queenstown’s cryptosporidium outbreak immediately brought to mind the country’s worst waterborne crisis, Havelock North’s campylobacter outbreak in 2016 when four people died, thousands were infected and many were left with long-term disabilities.

“Havelock [North] is always on our mind when we work in the water sector. It was a devastating event for many people. And it was quite devastating for the water sector as well, and so whenever we hear about these kind of things, Havelock comes up front of mind straight away.”

He explains the steps that water suppliers have to take by law to make sure their water is safe to drink, but he also points out that there are in fact thousands of suppliers around the motu – some of whom he knows nothing about.

Graham says he’s “uncomfortable” that a number of communities live with permanent boil water notices and is determined to end it.

“I can see no reason why we can’t get there. It’ll take a lot of work, it will require some money. If it can be done in other places it can be done here, so yes I’m very optimistic that we can do it and we should be doing it.”

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Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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