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SMC: Water Inquiry reports back

Water Inquiry reports back
The second stage of the Havelock North Inquiry has recommended universal treatment of drinking water to protect public health.

The 300-page report was tabled in Parliament on Wednesday by Attorney-General David Parker, who said it made for "sobering reading".

The Inquiry was formed following a campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North in August 2016. Over 5000 people became ill after the town's drinking water was contaminated and the outbreak was linked to four deaths.

Among its 51 recommendations, the Inquiry suggested a drinking water regulator should be established to oversee reforms.

It highlighted that 20 per cent of New Zealanders had drinking water that was potentially unsafe and that universal treatment of drinking water should be considered along with changes to the Resource Mangement Act to give explicit protection to drinking water sources.

University of Otago Professor of Public Health Michael Baker saidthe report was "hard-hitting in identifying a major failure of leadership by the Ministry of Health".

"National public health capacity has been eroding and fragmenting for many years in New Zealand."

But while the Inquiry had recommended a dedicated drinking regulator, Prof Baker cautioned that this could further split the capabilities of the Ministry.

"What we have seen over a period of many years is a steady erosion and fragmentation of this national public health function to the point that it is under serious threat.

“New Zealand now appears to be lurching from crisis to crisis. Workplace health and safety deteriorated for many years, and it took the Pike River crisis to remind us how bad it had become. We now seem to be heading down the same path following a drinking water safety crisis.

"Rather than wait for such crises, New Zealand could use this report as an opportunity to conduct a full stocktake of its public health capacity needs and where these functions are best situated. One obvious option is to have a substantial critical mass of public health expertise and functions located within the Ministry of Health."

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the report.

Quoted: Radio NZ
"We know all these birds individually, the team always takes it hard when one dies."
DOC scientist Dr Andrew Digby on
the death of a kākāpō following a routine transmitter change

Hard lessons from the quakes
A new book from former Press reporter Paul Gorman delves into how the science of the Christchurch and Kaikōura quakes was communicated.
Paul Gorman wasn't in Christchurch on February 22, 2011 when the massive quake struck the city. That almost made it worse for the science reporter as he awoke in London to messages conveying the distress of his family and colleagues back home.

Portacom City: Reporting on the Christchurch and Kaikoura Earthquakes is out this week from Bridget Williams Books and while just over 100 pages in length, it has been years in the development.

While Gorman treads carefully, it is clear that the disasters were a bruising experience for him, but not just for the obvious reasons. Smouldering frustration permeates the book, resulting from Gorman's often fraught relations with senior government scientists as he tried to cover the science of the quakes for The Press.

The book is an insight into how relatively small misunderstandings and miscommunications can unravel relationships and is a lesson to those engaged in science communication about the need for trust between scientists and journalists to be established in peace time, before the storm of a crisis hits.

Read the full review from SMC Director Peter Griffin on Sciblogs.

Policy news & developments

Whooping cough outbreak: The Ministry of Health has declared a national outbreak of whooping cough. Immunisation is free for pregnant women and is also encouraged for close family members.

Health director steps down: Director-General of Health Chai Chuah has decided to conclude his term early. He will step down from February 2018.

BIMs released: The Government has released the Briefings to Incoming Ministers that were provided by public sector agencies and Crown entities.

$2m for young scientists: Research, Science and Innovation Minister Dr Megan Woods has announced over $2m of funding for 33 projects through the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.

Rat droppings on kākāpō island: DOC has launched a response plan after the discovery of a possible rat dropping on predator-free island Whenua Hou, which is home to the Kākāpō Recovery Programme.

1080 threats to DOC staff: An anonymous letter writer threatened DOC staff that there would be more sika deer illegally released unless 1080 predator control programmes were halted.

Council votes against park closure: Auckland Council has voted not to close access to the Waitākere Ranges. A rāhui is in place in an attempt to prevent further spread of kauri dieback, and the council has decided to close several high-risk tracks.

US military funding gene drive
News broke on Monday night that a branch of the US military was putting millions of dollars of funding into research on gene drives.
Documents released to media from a lobby group and published by the New Zealand Herald, suggest the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has become the world’s largest funder of gene drive research, putting US$100m into the technology.

Multinational group GBIRd (Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents) has received some of those funds according to the documents. That group includes New Zealand Crown research institute, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research.

The story emerges as debate grows around the role genetic technologies should play in the country's Predator Free 2050 strategy.

While GBIRd appears to be exploring legitimate research themes, including the social acceptance of gene editing technology and feasibility of using New Zealand islands to trial gene drive technology, the association of emerging technology, the US military and New Zealand conservation was what stirred the media's interest - and sparked a strong response from conservation minister Eugenie Sage.

"Gene editing is an unproven technology for predator control. Gene technologies are problematic and untested and have significant risks," she told the Herald.

"They have no social licence to operate. There is a lot at stake and there is a need for the utmost caution."

Read the full story from the Herald's investigative reporter David Fisher here.

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