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John MacDonald: Time to give Three Waters a second chance

John MacDonald,
Publish Date
Wed, 13 Apr 2022, 1:23PM
(Photo / NZ Herald)
(Photo / NZ Herald)

John MacDonald: Time to give Three Waters a second chance

John MacDonald,
Publish Date
Wed, 13 Apr 2022, 1:23PM

The big news in Canterbury today is that we have asbestos leeching into our drinking water. 

We’re being told the health impact is uncertain but, I tell you what, it’s enough to make me think the Government’s Three Waters reforms might not be such a bad thing after all. 

I know the conspiracy theorists are already smelling a rat, and thinking that the timing of this research by the University of Otago is a bit suspicious, given the fight the Government has on its hands over Three Waters. 

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, the Three Waters reforms are all about the Government taking over control of drinking water, stormwater and wastewater from local councils. 

It wants to set up new water authorities – there’d be one authority for pretty much the whole of the South Island, if it went ahead. The Government would also pay councils some money in exchange for their water infrastructure assets. 

In Christchurch, for example, it’s talking about paying $120 million in exchange for $6.9 billion dollars worth of assets. Now, that’s a joke, and it’s had a lot of headlines. 

But with this news today about the asbestos – plus the debacle over the city council’s handling of the Bromley wastewater plant after the fire 163 days ago – I’m looking at Three Waters through very different eyes. 

The University of Otago researchers are saying that asbestos fibres are getting into the water here in Christchurch because all the old pipes made of asbestos cement are corroding. 

And, while their study was done in Christchurch, they say it’ll be the same everywhere – all over New Zealand. 

Now the researchers, and the head of Water New Zealand who spoke with Mike Hosking earlier this morning, are saying that there’s no immediate health risk.  

That’s on the basis, by the way, that any link between asbestos fibres in drinking water and cancer (for example) can only be made if data on the amount of asbestos that’s in the drinking water is collected regularly – and that’s not happening. So that’s their basis for saying there’s no immediate health risk. I see the person in charge of drinking water at the Christchurch City Council is saying today too that there’s no immediate health concern. 

What the Water New Zealand person was saying was that the risk she sees is contractors digging up the old pipes and disturbing the asbestos and getting exposed to it that way. 

But now that we know about it, there is no way we can sit on our hands and do nothing about it. Something is going to have to be done and I think we’d be dreaming if we thought local councils could afford to sort it out – let alone have the people to sort it out on their own. 

Christchurch couldn’t afford to dig up and replace all the old pipes. Selwyn couldn’t. Waimakariri couldn’t. The only outfit that could, is the Government. 

And under the Three Waters reform, it would be the Government’s responsibility to sort out the asbestos pipes. Makes sense to me. 

Just like the campaign that’s getting underway here in Christchurch to get the Government to tell the Christchurch City Council to stand aside and let it take over the clean-up of the Bromley wastewater plant. 

I think we can all agree that it is absolutely shameful that, after 163 days, the people in Bromley especially – but everyone in Christchurch – don’t have a clear idea from the Council how and when it’s going to sort that mess out. 

Again, under the Three Waters reforms, it’d be the Government’s job to sort it out. And, at this rate, I’d have much more confidence in the Government – or the new water authority – than I currently have in the Christchurch City Council. 

Now you might be thinking that I’ve fallen for the Government’s spin on Three Waters. But I’ve been more than willing to point out some of the absurdities. Parts of it I’ve agreed with, parts of it I haven’t. 

But when the scientists are now telling us that asbestos fibres are getting into our drinking water here in Canterbury but they can’t tell us what the long-term consequences might be because they don’t have the data to work with – well, I think it’s time for us to take our parochial blinkers off and face the facts. 

And the facts are this: we have an abundance of beautiful, natural water here, but the infrastructure that gets it to our bathrooms and kitchens is falling apart. And our local councils cannot afford to do anything about it. The only outfit that has the money, is the Government. 

And that’s why my view is changing, and why I think we need to take the blinkers off and give the Three Waters reforms a second chance. 

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