Eyeing the shape of three waters
In some shape or form, water affects us all. I’ve been hearing a lot about it lately — from New Zealanders I meet, from elected officers and other local government experts, from iwi, from officials, engineers, environmentalists, medical officers and from my ministerial colleagues across a wide range of portfolios. And I’ve just returned from a fact-finding trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland looking at how those countries arrange their water systems.
Over the past few years we’ve heard a lot more about these issues. In Havelock North in August 2016, up to 5000 people became ill through drinking water contaminated by Campylobacter. Four people are thought to have died from associated causes.
Almost every day there is news from somewhere around the country about raw sewage in the rivers, on the beaches, on school playgrounds after flooding, boil water notices, an outbreak of illness related to water-borne bugs, contaminated bores and so on.
In Aotearoa we regard clean water as a birthright. We want to be able to turn on the tap and drink it without fear of our children getting ill.
We want to be able to swim in rivers and go to the beach without sharing the water with overflow from sewerage pipes. We want to be able to believe in a clean, green New Zealand.
So we should. An assured supply of clean, fresh water is a hallmark of any developed nation.
It would be wrong to exaggerate the problem, but the Havelock North Inquiry report indicates we can and must do better.
Alongside the inquiry, our government is progressing a “Three Waters” review into interconnected drinking water, wastewater and stormwater challenges.
As a nation our health depends on a supply of clean, safe water; our environment suffers when wastewater is not well treated; we cannot build housing in high-growth or regional centres if we don’t have the ability to fund and build the necessary water-related infrastructure; our image and the valuable associated tourism industry will suffer badly if we don’t address the issues; climate change and building resilience against natural disaster only add to the scale of the challenge.
New Zealand’s local government sector, which owns and manages most of the three waters assets, held its annual conference this week. I was delighted to have been invited to address the gathering and to continue the conversation on such matters.
Over time, most councils have been good stewards of our water. But emerging challenges are testing the ability of councils, especially some smaller provincial ones, to meet expected standards and service levels in the face of declining populations, high tourism demand, ageing infrastructure and climate change-related impacts.
Some of the issues relate to the looming costs required to ensure safer drinking water and better environmental practices, and how our communities will be able to afford the bills. The scale of the challenge is too big for either central or local government to tackle alone, which is why we are determined to work in good faith with local government to identify potential options and solutions.
During my overseas trip I heard a great deal from local government, water regulators, government ministers, water suppliers and others in charge of three waters in England, Scotland and Ireland. The comparisons with what happens here are potentially fruitful.
But anything we do must be appropriate to our own situations and must also retain all existing water assets in public ownership, and make provision for the public interest to be represented in the design solution. These are bottom lines.
The conversation ahead is challenging, but as a country we can no longer avoid having it.