OPINION: In most places in New Zealand, residents expect to be able to turn on the tap and get clean, uncontaminated water that they can drink without hesitation.
Regrettably, the reality does not always fulfil this expectation. According to a report by the Ministry of Health in 2010, one in five New Zealanders had unsafe or unregistered drinking water. That does not mean anywhere near that number actually has bad water, but the risk of it is uncomfortably high.
Two episodes in Canterbury districts in the last month show the consequences for public health that can flow when water quality slips. They also show a worryingly loose attitude towards seeing that residents get timely and accurate information about water so that they can take any steps necessary to protect themselves.
The more serious episode occurred in Darfield, where more than 125 residents were struck down with gastroenteritis. Although the cause was not immediately determined, contaminated water was the prime suspect. Intensified farming in the district leading to contamination of the water supply from animal faeces along with the fact that Darfield is the largest town in the country still to rely on septic tanks and boulder holes, with no reticulated sewerage system, mean the risk is a continuing one.
In fact, the bacterium E. coli was found in the town's drinking-water supply on August 17 and a boil-water notice was issued. The Selwyn District Council claims it did everything it possibly could to ensure everyone knew about the notice but it was clearly inadequate. Many people were still unaware of the notice when it was lifted four days after it was issued. The council blamed delays with mail deliveries for the failure of the notice to reach everyone who might have been affected by it. For a matter of such potential importance, to rely on the ordinary mail hardly seems enough. Darfield is not a large town - a prompt leaflet drop to all households should not have been difficult to organise and would at least have been a reasonable effort to ensure that all residents were properly informed.
Residents in Waimakariri too have been complaining about their council's failure to communicate about problems in their water supply. Residents in that district on the Mandeville water scheme were told in a leaflet drop on August 24 that E. coli had been detected and they were advised to boil their water until further notice.
Although tests have continued, residents are unhappy that they have not been kept up to date with what has happened since, with some being unsure whether the notice still applies. To its credit, the council in this case has acknowledged that its communication could have been better.
According to Labour's environment spokesman, Grant Robertson, the Government has "taken its eye off the ball" over drinking water and more such outbreaks can be expected. Robertson cites the cutting of supports such as the water subsidy scheme. This is glib.
The supply of water to the required standard has long been a core function of local councils, one that is among the most important of their responsibilities. The Government may set standards for councils, but the provision of the water supply, and the funding of it, must remain a local responsibility. There can be no reasonable excuse by any council for failing to meet that responsibility.
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