Jacinda v David: Kiwi water quality a third world issue

by Jacinda Ardern, originally posted on January 8, 2017


OPINION: The National government traded away Kiwis’ rights to clean water.

There are probably a few topics of conversation over the summer months that will come up repeatedly: whether new year resolutions are futile, why so many icons passed away in 2016, Trump…

But one has stuck in my mind. I was in Hastings, discussing the water crisis in Havelock North, when a resident described to me the aftermath of the issue: the days when the drinking water smelt so strongly of a chlorinated pool you couldn’t bring yourself to drink it, the feeling that everything that could be drunk needed to be boiled, and being unable to imaginea day when they couldn’t drink the water that came through their tap at home.

But Havelock North was not a one off, it  just happened to be the moment where our entire country’s water quality issues moved from being about polluted rivers and lakes (that we could turn a blind eye to), to being about the liquid piped into the kitchen taps of one small town.

In fact, for the past three years, the residents of Ashburton have been unable to use bore water to feed babies because of the nitrate levels and risk of blue baby syndrome.

These are third world water issues, right on our doorstep.

But our poor drinking water is just a manifestation of our poor water quality, overall. There was a time when our only worry about jumping into our nearest river was the possibility of upsetting the eels. When that changed and 60 per cent of our monitored swimming sites were (based on the Government’s own reports) graded as poor  or very poor, the response wasn’t to up our game, it was to reduce our minimum standards from ‘swimmable’ to ‘wadeable.’

I’d like to be level-headed enough to eloquently articulate all of the reasons why this drop in standard is so wrong. But I think what enrages me is that faced with the known problem, the National government just traded away our right to rivers clean enough to swim in – that was every New Zealanders right, and it wasn’t theirs to trade.

The warning signs were all there – we were in a dairy boom. There were incentives to intensify and convert land to diary and that’s exactly what happened. Among all of this increase in effluent run off and increasing use of nitrates, it was councils that had responsibility for managing the impact on our waterways, but essentially didn’t.  And if we needed further confirmation that we had a problem, we got our first shot across the bow from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in 2004 via his report Growing for Good.

Labour was in government at the time, and tried to find a solution that would mean bringing our water back to standard via a national policy statement. It took years to develop, and even met resistance from government departments. In 2010 a panel of experts (the Sheppard Board) set out exactly how we could clean up our waterways over the course of a generation. But by then, we had a new government. The idea of putting any restrictions on future intensification wasn’t a priority, and clearly neither was our water.

Don’t get me wrong. I grew up in Morrinsville. I will always acknowledge the importance of our dairy industry and I sincerely believe that there are farmers out there who have watched their kids grow up around the rivers and streams that cross their land who care deeply about this issue. But our dairy industry is not full of family operated businesses – there are syndicates and corporates who will often push for outputs and won’t feel any connection to these environmental issues that effect us all, especially if it impacts on the bottom line. That’s not good enough.

I’ve heard David Parker, our spokesman for water and one of the most passionate advocates for river protection that I have seen in Parliament, often say that the most important river to most of us is the one we live close to and use. We can and should turn our water crisis around, and if your river and my river are clean enough to swim in, then they all will be. It’s not too much to ask.

David Seymour responds

First of all, a sense of proportion. The Ministry of Health reports annually on the water quality of all registered water networks serving more than 100 people.  The 2015 report found 95 per cent of people received water at standard. When things went wrong, water suppliers took immediate remedial action for all but 1.1 percent of the population. Jacinda can’t help being an opposition politician, but science and data matter when it comes to health and the environment, and she has gotten a little carried away trying to paint a gloomy picture here.

That doesn’t help those affected in places such as Havelock North and Ashburton, though.  The Ministry’s report tells us almost all of the problems occur in smaller centres, where councils may not have the scale and resource of a Hamilton or a Christchurch.

I suggest these councils need to focus on their core business, such as water. Havelock North, for instance, was involved in promoting the wine industry at the time of their outbreak.  Ashburton District Council recently disestablished its economic development arm after it lost nearly $100,000 investing in a hot pool that the economic development chair had a personal interest in. The water problems we do have are a reminder that councils, especially small ones, need to focus on their core business first.

 – Sunday Star Times



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