Reports show need for improved water service delivery by councils
14 April 2014
The recent release of the Ministry of Healths Annual Report on Drinking Water Quality and a stormwater report commissioned by the Auckland Council provide two further reminders of the need for better scrutiny and accountability in meeting drinking water, wastewater and stormwater standards in New Zealand, says CEO of the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development Stephen Selwood.
While freshwater issues have succeeded in penetrating the public debate, leading to a number of positive initiatives including the Land and Water Forum and the Land Air Water Aotearoa monitoring website, these reports highlight immediate issues of urban water service quality and accountability which are not receiving the attention they deserve.
Pleasingly, Local Government New Zealand is leading a project to create a nationwide data framework for water infrastructure which seeks to share best practice, reduce costs and adopt innovative practices in water service delivery. This work needs to be completed with urgency, but ultimately requires a national discussion and Government buy-in to overcome the size of the challenge.
Consistent with the previous study in 2011/12, the Ministry of Healths latest report reveals, once again, quite serious problems with drinking water in areas serviced by smaller providers. Just 22 per cent of residents living in small water zones of 101-500 people and 37.8 per cent of those in minor zones of 501-5000 people received drinking water that met all national standards.
That performance can be compared to large zone populations above 10,000, where drinking water met standards for 86.7 per cent of residents.
"The New Zealand Herald today reported that stormwater performance may in some cases be even worse. Around $10 billion is required to fix Aucklands stormwater system over the next 50 years. In the meantime, runoff from homes, roads and gardens will continue to pollute many popular swimming, food collection and coastal activity areas.
Both reports provide revealing insights into the reasons why and how New Zealands urban water sector is the worst performing infrastructure category identified in the National Infrastructure Plan 2011.
But they also suggest potential benefits of scale and specialisation in the provision of water services.
Aucklands water supply and wastewater services are delivered under a single, vertically integrated provider able to leverage economies of scale to improve strategic capacity, focus and implementation.
Watercare is, however, unique in the New Zealand context, being empowered through legislation, resourced through metered water charges and directly accountable to deliver water supply and wastewater services.
As a result, Auckland performs strongly across indices such as water supply. But in a related service activity such as stormwater, where responsibility and accountability is diffused within the council structure and where resourcing is an annual competition for limited funds with transport, parks and other activities, performance is much less exemplary.
Whether or not stormwater can and should become a function of a dedicated three waters agency like Watercare is unclear, due to the unpriceable nature of stormwater provision. What is demonstrable is that specialised agencies delivering water services at scale are generally more effective than distributed models with complex governance arrangements.
Such was the finding of the Government-appointed Local Government Infrastructure Efficiency Expert Advisory Group anda 2012 report by PWC and GHD commissioned by NZCID and Water NZ.
Its positive to see reporting now catching up with performance, but if New Zealand is to really lift its game in the water service sector, a closer look at structures and resourcing models will be required, says Selwood.