This article originally appeared on Community Scoop. It was written by Warren Lindberg, our CEO.
I generally sympathise with local bodies when the State imposes responsibilities without giving them the cash required to implement its bidding, but the drinking water crisis in Hawke’s Bay cries out for a greater sense of responsibility from Wellington. This world-class stuff-up has thrown a strong light on a long-neglected public health issue that has made a third of the population of Havelock North sick, and is forcing us to face the fact that what comes out of the kitchen tap can no longer be taken for granted.
The campylobacter in Havelock North’s water supply is not a new problem, just an inevitability that has been ignored. As John Pfahlert, Chief Executive of Water NZ, a not-for-profit representing the water industry, says, “It was always going to be a case of when, not if, a community in New Zealand would be struck down with campylobacter. Supplying a whole community with untreated water has always been a calculated risk.”
Drinking water standards are set by the Ministry of Health, while local authorities are responsible for supply and ensuring the quality of water for their populations. In this case it involves both the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, responsible for region-wide policy and infrastructure, and Hastings District Council, responsible for district-level services and supply. Both are charged by the Local Government Act to ensure the wellbeing of their population, including the requirement to “take all practical steps to comply with drinking water standards”. Compliance with the standards is monitored by the Ministry through the Medical Officers of Health employed by the local DHB. The Medical Officers are then responsible for tracing the source of any outbreak, and the DHB, of course, has to treat the victims of poor performance. In this case more than 5000 people seeking treatment from an already stretched health service.
It’s still not clear whether the source of contamination was a specific problem – possibly poorly maintained artesian bores in Havelock North – or a more difficult to trace seepage of animal faeces into the river and the water table.
But what also went wrong was the lack of clear accountability among the various agencies that share responsibility, but not enough to ensure the drinking water standards are robust, monitored and actually met. What’s needed is one agency that knows what’s required, has the resources, and an uncomplicated mandate to protect the public’s health – central Government.
Decisions about the risks and benefits of adding chlorine (and fluoride) to our drinking water need to be based on robust science, standardised procedures and competent health protection officers. Sharing out responsibility among a number of local agencies, each with different priorities and capabilities, is no way to protect something so fundamental to the health of the whole population.
The health system has the people capable of doing this job to a very high standard. It is a necessary job, mostly taken for granted – so long as no one falls ill. The Ministry of Health needs the certainty of knowing it has the mandate, and is not beholden to popular causes and political negotiations. And we deserve to know who’s in charge when something goes wrong.
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