Current Affairs

800,000 NZers at risk of infection from unsafe water supply - report

Havelock North residents say they are still being affected by pain and illness from the outbreak.

Experts investigating the Havelock North gastro outbreak warn hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders are at risk of getting sick and universal treatment of drinking water is needed.

The Havelock North Water Inquiry has released its second report today.

It warned nearly 800,000 New Zealanders - or 20 percent of people on town supply - are drinking water that is "not demonstrably safe".

"Of these, 92,000 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."

More than 5000 people were made sick in August last year as campylobacter spread through the village's contaminated drinking water. Dozens were hospitalised, and at least three were left with a chronic condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

A government inquiry was launched as a result. It was split into two parts, with the results of the first phase were released in May.

The first stage of the inquiry found the Hawke's Bay Regional Council and the Hastings District Council failed to meet their responsibilities to safeguard Havelock North's drinking water.

Drinking stations were set up around Havelock North during the crisis. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King
Drinking stations were set up around Havelock North during the crisis. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The second report - released this afternoon - has called for much greater treatment of water supplies.

It said it was necessary to treat all reticulated drinking water in order to protect the health of the public - particularly the vulnerable such as the young, elderly and ill.

It also warned complacency was rife among the district councils who supplied drinking water and has made 51 separate recommendations.

The inquiry has called for an independent drinking water regulator to oversee the entire system - monitoring, compliance and enforcement.

The report also slammed the Ministry of Health's response after the outbreak, stating there was "an enormous vacuum of leadership".

While the inquiry did not criticise the Ministry's immediate response, "what is of concern, however, is the inaction and lack of energy by officials, in the period after September 2016".

It also found the Ministry's resources were seriously inadequate.

The Ministry has only 3.5 staff dedicated to looking after water supply, which the inquiry found was "nowhere near adequate to properly discharge the statutory functions, let alone also provide effective leadership".

'We must do better'

Attorney General David Parker said the report made sobering reading.

"The report highlights the quality of drinking water in New Zealand is often inadequate, and that regulation and enforcement have been poor. We must do better."

Mr Parker said the government has written today to mayors and District Health Boards throughout the country.

"We've asked them to check the water they're supplying residents meets current standards, given the report finds significant non-compliance."

Health Minister David Clark said it highlighted the need for action.

"Overall, this report raises serious concerns about oversight and infrastructure. We will be pursuing solutions to address any problems identified.

"I'll be briefing Cabinet before Christmas on the next steps - both short and long term."

TIMELINE: Havelock North's water contamination crisis

This story was first published on RNZ.