Supplied water for 758,000 Kiwis unsafe, ministry asleep at the wheel

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Supplied water for 758,000 Kiwis unsafe, ministry asleep at the wheel

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The Ministry of Health has been accused of failing to regulate water standards adequately, with 758,000 people’s water supply not considered safe

A scathing report on the Ministry of Health's handling of the Havelock North campylobacter outbreak in August last year suggests dumping the ministry as the agency responsible for drinking water quality.

Stage two of a Department of Internal Affairs inquiry into Havelock North drinking water was released today, and outlined the cost of the outbreak as well as the overall risk to New Zealanders posed by drinking water supplies.

In the year 2015/16, between 18,000 and 100,000 people likely became ill from their drinking water, costing the country between $12.5 million and $23.7 million per year.

The report finds that water suppliers are not meeting standards required and accuses the ministry of being unable to call the industry to account.

It was the second blow for the ministry today, coming on top of a State Services Commission review of the ministry which found its relationships at an all-time low.

The drinking water report found there are 758,000 people in New Zealand, 20 per cent of the serviced population, who are supplied with water “not demonstrably safe to drink".

Fifty-one recommendations are made in the report, with top of the list a new drinking water regulator to oversee water quality and the treatment of all water supplies.

The ministry is incapable of doing the regulator’s job and its drinking water team should be dismantled, the report says, replaced by a “drinking water regulation establishment unit".

“The Ministry of Health’s current disaggregated drinking water resources do not possess the necessary skills and attributes and should not be used for this purpose,” the authors say.

Ministry officials are accused of inaction and of lacking energy in the months after the outbreak.

Following the Government’s stage one report into the outbreak, it was made clear that the ministry should take leadership on systematic problems within water supplies in the Havelock North area, but this did not happen, the inquiry says.

This “suggests both substantial under-resourcing and a lack of necessary skill levels within the drinking water section of the ministry.”

Hundreds of thousands at risk of infection

Of the population being served up unsafe water, 92,000 people are at risk of bacterial infection, 681,000 of protozoal infection and 59,000 at risk from the long-term effects of exposure to chemicals, all from drinking supplied water.

Even more concerning, according to the report, are the compliance data for small supplies serving fewer than 100 people.

Only 25 per cent of such supplies are keeping up with water quality standards, something former director-general of the ministry, Chai Chuah described in the report as “woeful and worrying".

The economic cost to society of the Havelock North outbreak has been estimated by Sapere Research Group to be $21 million. Of that, $12.4 million came in household costs like sourcing alternative drinking water and taking time off other activities.

Health-related costs amounted to $2.5 million in lost productivity and medical care.

Report of the Havelock North Drinking Water Inquiry: Stage 2. December 2017
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