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Pristine Water?

Water Environment Health

Will Bad Water Yield Lessons? The gastro outbreak suffered by an estimated 5,200 Havelock North residents, workers and visitors in August has driven home – with a force ‘public consultation’ could never achieve – the critical importance of safe, clean water in Hawke’s Bay.

Tom Belford02 December 2016

BB32

FOR SEVERAL WEEKS, the outbreak was the focus of attention for affected families, Havelock businesses, local politicians, councils and the health system, and local and national media.

Except for a few individuals suffering complications from the initial infection, the health impact itself is history. For consumers of Hastings/Havelock water, the continuing upset for many is the ongoing need to drink chlorinated water.

Otherwise, attention has shifted to solving the puzzle of how the contamination occurred, determining whether and where any legal culpability might exist, identifying steps needed to ensure future drinking water safety, and improving communications methods used to alert residents to such dangers.

These issues are under review by two formal external investigations – one by the Regional Council in its roles as the enforcer of water bore consents and as ultimate protector of the region’s aquifers; and one by government, aimed at understanding both the local and national future implications of this episode. As well, councils and DHB are conducting their own internal reviews of relevant aspects of their knowledge base, risk planning and monitoring practices, and crisis management.

At the same time, Havelock businesses must recover from their financial losses; the village, district, and region must overcome any reputational loss suffered; and residents must contemplate the degree of risk they are prepared to accept (or not) to ensure drinking water safety.

This Special Report provides a comprehensive review of all these issues. Prepared by a team of BayBuzz writers toward the end of October, the articles are as timely as our bi-monthly publication schedule allows. Much more information (and hopefully answers) will surface as the two investigations unfold, and we will certainly update as that occurs.

Our commitment of such extensive editorial space to the gastro outbreak reflects two considerations.

First, we think it useful to present in one place, at one time, in considerable depth, the complete story of what occurred. The story is reported as told by each of the three key players in the episode – the Hastings Council, the Regional Council, and the DHB and primary care providers. Each has their own perspective, and in our reporting you will see where they agree and disagree.

Second, as much as everyone wants to ‘solve the mystery’ and get to the bottom of what actually happened to contaminate the water, it’s the future that matters most now. Here are the questions that must be answered as investigations progress …

  • What have we learned about ongoing risks or threats to our water supply and distribution systems?
  • Are we taking an appropriately precautionary approach to managing our drinking water, given that multiple contaminations have occurred?
  • Are the roles of various players clearly enough defined and are the standards and practices they are implementing sufficient?
  • How can councils/DHB and others involved improve communications to the community in emergency situations?
  • What risks are we prepared to take with our drinking water, weighing the treatment options that might provide more security against their costs and disadvantages?
  • How confident are we about the overall water quality in the aquifers providing drinking water in our region’s urban core … firstly in the present situation of Havelock North, and then in terms of the entire Heretaunga Plains and future trends?

These are important questions for all of Hawke’s Bay. Some residents have been directly affected already; some (maybe all) face the prospect of permanent water treatment; while to others the management of our drinking water offers insights into the adequacy of our region’s overall handling of water issues.

Hopefully the articles that follow will help readers answer these questions to your own satisfaction, or lead you to insist upon more definitive information and answers from councils, the DHB and the investigations underway.

Sophie Price begins with the Hastings Council perspective. Then Keith Newman reports on the Regional Council’s approach and Jessica Soutar Barron on the role and response of the DHB and primary care providers. Jessica also reports on the Havelock business impact and the scope of the government inquiry. And finally, Sarah Cates looks at potential future water treatment options and issues.

Tom Belford02 December 2016

BB32

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