Water clarity desirable

''Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.''

More than a week after the major gastroenteritis outbreak in Havelock North, authorities still confess to having absolutely no idea how the town's water supply was contaminated with campylobacter.

Hundreds of cases of campylobacteriosis have been confirmed, and it is estimated about 4500 people have become ill. Several people have been hospitalised and one pensioner who had contracted the disease has died (although there were other health issues at play, so the exact cause of death is not clearcut).

The situation - and its scale - is scarcely believable. It is a third-world problem in a country where citizens take for granted a clean, reliable municipal water supply.

It also makes further mockery of New Zealand's ''clean, green, 100% Pure'' labels, already tarnished with revelations about the extent of waterways pollution.

It is impossible not to feel some sympathy for Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule, who continues to front up to media and the public, while admitting he has no idea of the cause. Yet, his assurances the council has the matter under control are not convincing.

There has been criticism about how quickly residents were notified there was a problem with the town's bore-fed water. The supply was chlorinated as was Hastings' water after E.coli was discovered in one of the tankers supplying (supposedly clean) water from the city to Havelock North in the wake of the outbreak.

Testing of the Havelock North bores has shown faecal contamination - which scientists said was most likely to have come from sheep, cattle or deer. Despite the chlorination, to kill the unwanted bacteria, residents are still being advised to boil their water.

And, just as most Havelock North schools reopened, a Hawkes Bay school with a private bore was yesterday closed because of a positive E.coli test and the retirement village where the elderly resident died is in lock-down over another gastro outbreak.

If there are no answers from public health officials, scientists, and local and central government, how can residents have any confidence in the water supply and their own health and safety - generally and in an emergency?

A government inquiry (the terms of reference were announced on Monday) is welcome, therefore, not just for the affected residents, but all New Zealanders.

The inquiry will determine the cause of the contamination, the response of relevant parties, local and central government, and how to prevent future occurrences.

It will also look at the potential for similar health crises elsewhere in New Zealand and the lessons for local and central government agencies.

There are concerns, though, that it does not go far enough. The Greens, environmental groups and some scientists argue it must look specifically at the possible impacts of agricultural intensification.

Given the possibility of livestock contamination in this instance, the increasing agriculture, irrigation and fertiliser use in many regions, and the use of groundwater for municipal and private water supplies, that certainly seems relevant.

However, it is unclear whether that will be addressed under the ''broad'' terms - unless agricultural contamination is identified as the cause.

A further criticism has been that the Government should have declared a drinking water emergency. Prime Minister John Key's response is the inquiry will establish whether that should have been done.

A lot rests on the inquiry, then, but an inquiry head still needs to be appointed before any work can begin and any conclusions made and advice acted on.

With repercussions for drinking water supplies nationwide, authorities' response in an emergency, and public confidence, it is to be hoped the inquiry will be thorough and as speedy as possible.

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