Millions of dollars required to fix NZ’s drinking water infrastructure

First published in Inside Resources.

In late 2016, campylobacter bacteria caused the critical contamination of Havelock North’s drinking water supply.  The fall out resulted in a number of inquiries about how this came about.  A lengthy, detailed inquiry found serious inadequacies in the system.  The Department for Internal Affairs has since commissioned a report from Beca, which estimates that nearly $600m of works would be required to fix New Zealand’s drinking water infrastructure.  The work involved will keep drinking water technical experts and infrastructure construction companies busy for many years.

The presence of the campylobacter bacteria in Havelock North’s drinking water supply caused illness in 5,000 residents of Havelock North in Hastings.  We don’t expect this sort of issue in New Zealand.  It is not aligned with our image – not just being clean and green, but more fundamentally, it is a failure of our core infrastructure affecting public health.

More recently, the Ministry of Health released figures showing that one in five New Zealanders are drinking water from water supplies not meeting current water standards.

Following hearings about the incident in 2016 and 2017, an independent inquiry released findings in two stages (in May 2017 and in December 2017). The findings included 51 recommendations involving  urgent action and legal reform to address the deficiencies in both Havelock North’s drinking water supply and drinking water supplies throughout New Zealand.

The findings were damning of the existing system and refer to the “complacency of administrators” and “widespread systematic failure”.  They expressed strong concern that nearly 800,000 New Zealanders were drinking water that was “not demonstrably safe”.  The inquiry called for urgent action showing that much of the infrastructure inside the water system is due, or overdue, for renewal or replacement.

A year on from the first report, very little has happened.  Environment Minister David Parker says the inquiry’s recommendations are important for everybody to read but he doesn’t say what he’ll do about them.  On 30 May 2018, Local Government Minister Hon Nanaia Mahuta stated that the Three Waters Review (the Government’s wide scale review of drinking water, stormwater and wastewater) is due to report back to Cabinet in October this year with “high-level options” for upgrading the country’s drinking water infrastructure. So we can expect a clearer direction then, but not necessarily action.  There is no timeframe for a new water management model.

Some work has commenced on a local scale.  Upgrades to the physical infrastructure in Hawkes Bay have begun, including a $10 million project to lay more than 4.8km of pipe from Hastings to Havelock North.  Matamata-Piako District Council is also reviewing drinking water infrastructure in its district. However, the comprehensive response demanded by the inquiry is not evident.

While the Government has been spinning its wheels on this issue, LGNZ released its Water 2050 Report in May 2018.  The report focuses on two main areas; funding and regulation.  The report firstly highlighted the obvious – that local authorities simply do not have the funds to implement infrastructure improvements to meet increasing drinking water standards.  Unsurprisingly, LGNZ calls for collaboration between central and local government and for alternative funding mechanisms.  However, the details of these remain elusive.

Local government is right to be concerned at the amount of expenditure required to upgrade the existing system.  The Department for Internal Affairs commissioned a cost estimate report from Beca.  It estimates the cost of improvement works are in the range of $308.7 million to $573.7 million to upgrade the 611 water treatment plants across New Zealand.  Not only is it a significant challenge to understand what the costs will be and when they will be incurred, but this is only one part of the works required to satisfy the inquiry.

Regulation is also at the forefront of the Government’s concerns about the future.  More recently, the Hon Nanaia Mahuta has indicated that there is likely to be a dedicated water regulator.  Allan Prangell, director of the Three Waters Review has suggested that four possible solutions are on the table to regulate the system:

  1. Keep the status quo: introduce a new regulatory regime administered by councils. However, the Government seems keen to take a more innovative approach.
  2. Regionalising water services: allowing territorial authorities to jointly govern and manage water though the region, for example how water is managed in Wellington by Wellington Water.
  3. Creating super regions: splitting New Zealand into three to five larger regions for more ratepayers to be raising revenue to make funding infrastructure easier.
  4. Introduce a new tax: dedicating a tax to help communities fund services, similar to the fuel tax.

One thing remains clear – Returning to a state of safe, maintained water infrastructure won’t be a quick fix and will involve many years of works.  There is a long way to go before recommendations are made and these become policy – while we remain in the “conceptual stage” considering the drinking water system in New Zealand, public heath remains at risk.

Who can help

Related Articles