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Another Havelock North? Govt Undoing Protections For Drinking Water Safety

Public health experts are warning that by dismantling protections for our drinking water, the Government is risking a repeat of the Havelock North campylobacteriosis outbreak that left four dead and thousands ill.

The latest Briefing from the Public Health Communication Centre—Another Havelock North? Govt undoing protections for drinking water safety—looks at the protections that were put in place in following the National-led Government inquiry into the 2016 outbreak which was the largest of its kind in the world.

Briefing co-author, University of Otago research fellow Marnie Prickett says the Inquiry led to policy changes aimed at strengthening the protection of water and improving the safety and quality of drinking water.

“At the time the Inquiry warned that knowledge of the circumstances of the outbreak would fade, and its immediate impact will be lost so it was essential that drinking water protection was enshrined in law. That warning now seems prophetic as the Government is proposing a number of policy changes that will weaken protections for drinking water.”

Ms Prickett says the extent of the changes proposed may be obscured as they are across multiple policies. For example, after Havelock North, the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management was rewritten to prioritise the protection of drinking water sources over commercial interests (Te Mana o te Wai). This was a major public health gain. Additionally, the Resource Management Act (RMA) was amended to make councils’ responsibility for protecting drinking water sources more explicit. “The Government is planning to rewrite the national policy statement and the RMA in ways that would undo these gains and leave drinking water more vulnerable.”

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Furthermore, Ms Prickett points out, the Government’s Fast-Track Approvals Bill would allow projects to override protections for drinking water and likely projects (i.e., irrigation dams) would put more pressure on communities’ drinking water.

Marnie Prickett says through the Havelock North outbreak and the subsequent inquiry, NZ learned hard and important lessons about the severe impact of contaminated drinking water and best practice approaches to strengthen the country’s drinking water system.

“However, the Coalition Government is unwisely, and largely unaccountably, dismantling improvements made or initiated to protect water sources in the aftermath of outbreak. It is critical that Ministers and other policy makers take stock of the suite of changes proposed and ensure that they are not setting the stage for the next Havelock North type disaster.”

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