The Government Inquiry into the Havelock North Drinking-water Outbreak

The Havelock North Inquiry investigated the widespread outbreak of gastroenteritis in Havelock North in August 2016 during which more than 5000 people were estimated to have fallen ill, with up to four deaths associated with the outbreak.

The first stage of the Inquiry focused on identifying the direct causes of the gastroenteritis outbreak. The second stage examined the wider regulatory context and made recommendations to reduce the likelihood of such an outbreak occurring again.

The Inquiry released its Stage Two findings in December 2017. The Inquiry found widespread systemic failure of water suppliers to meet the high standards required for the safe supply of drinking-water to the public. It found that 80 percent of people served by network supplies that serve 100 people or more have access to water that meets all current standards, but raised concerns about the other 20 percent.

It also found that the enforcement of statutory obligations on water suppliers was not as effective as it should be. It concluded that the present system of regulation does not ensure that water suppliers comply with the law and New Zealand’s drinking-water standards, and recommended significant reform.

The Inquiry made 51 recommendations to improve the safety of our drinking-water, the main ones being that all water supplies should be treated and that a dedicated drinking-water regulator should be established.

The Inquiry made a number of urgent and early recommendations while recognising that many of its recommendations would likely require detailed reviews, cost analysis, consultation with interested parties, or substantive legislative change.

Government response to Havelock North Drinking-water Inquiry findings

The Government has already adopted a number of the Inquiry’s urgent and early recommendations that will improve how the current drinking water regime functions. The Government has directed further work that, if adopted, would result in fundamental changes to the way we manage and regulate drinking-water.

Immediate actions

The Ministry of Health has undertaken some immediate actions in response to the Inquiry. These include:

  • the Director-General of Health issuing a formal statement on 20 December 2017 which asked district health boards to remind water suppliers of their statutory responsibilities to provide safe water – including considering treating water – set out in the Health Act 1956

  • taking steps to improve compliance with the Drinking-water Standards by issuing updated guidance and training to Drinking Water Assessors, Medical Officers of Health and Health Protection Officers.

The Ministry has also provided additional information on compliance and enforcement to these public health officers, specifically:

  • establishing a Drinking-water Advisory Committee with expertise across a range of relevant disciplines to provide advice on supplying safe drinking-water, including advising on revisions to the Drinking-water Standards
  • ensuring the accountability arrangements for Drinking Water Assessors are clear, and improving communication channels between Assessors
  • providing advice and guidance to Drinking Water Assessors and drinking-water suppliers to help them improve risk assessment and management of drinking-water supplies
  • commissioning the Institute of Environmental Science and Research to update the Ministry’s water safety plan framework and supporting 39 guidance documents
  • encouraging public health units to set up collaborative arrangements with water suppliers in their regions to promote information sharing and cooperation at local levels to improve the safety of drinking-water.

Since the release of the Stage 2 Inquiry Report and a statement from the Director-General of Health advocating the use of disinfection, more water suppliers are providing disinfected water. At the time of the report’s release on 6 December 2017 more than 600,000 people received undisinfected water. By early this year this figure was estimated to have reduced to less than 90,000 people.

Major changes being considered

The Government has directed further work to be undertaken that could result in fundamental changes to the way we manage and regulate drinking-water. This includes the development of advice on the Inquiry’s recommendations to:

  • require water supplies to be treated, including with a residual disinfectant in the reticulation
  • make compliance with the Drinking-water Standards mandatory
  • establish a dedicated drinking-water regulator
  • establish aggregated, dedicated water suppliers.

The Government will consider the Inquiry’s recommendations alongside other considerations, such as access, funding and sustainability in working out how to ensure our drinking-water is both demonstrably safe and affordable. This will include consultation with local government, Māori and others.

Many of the issues around how drinking-water is managed and regulated extend across all of the ‘three waters’ services – drinking-water, wastewater and storm water. This system as a whole is facing several challenges. These include funding pressures, higher environmental and public health standards, climate change and seasonal pressure from tourism. That’s why the Government will consider changes to the way we manage and regulate drinking-water in the context of the entire ‘three waters’ system.

Streamlining the current regulatory regime

Ahead of considering more substantial changes to the way we manage and regulate drinking-water, the Government has introduced a Bill that will enable improvements to the efficiency and effectiveness of the existing drinking-water regulatory regime.

These include making amendments to the drinking-water provisions of the Health Act 1956 which will:

  • remove specified periods for consultation and notice of changes to the Drinking Water Standards for New Zealand
  • clarify that water safety plans must include implementation timetables
  • streamline processes for the appointment of Drinking Water Assessors
  • other minor and technical amendments.
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