Water supply and sanitation in New Zealand
|New Zealand: Water and sanitation|
|Water coverage (broad definition)||100%|
|Sanitation coverage (broad definition)||100%|
|Continuity of supply (%)||Mostly continuous|
|Average residential water use (l/p/d)||263-litre/person/day (2019)|
|Average domestic water and sewer bill||NZD$850/year|
|Share of household metering||50%|
|Annual investment in WSS||NZD$2 billion (2018/19)|
|Share of self-financing by utilities||High|
|Share of tax-financing||Nil|
|Share of external financing||Nil|
|Decentralisation to municipalities||In all regions|
|Water and sanitation regulator||Taumata Arowai|
|Responsibility for policy setting||Shared between Ministry of Health and Department of Internal Affairs|
|Sector law||The Health Act|
Taumata Arowai—the Water Services Regulator Bill
Water supply and sanitation in New Zealand is provided for most people by infrastructure owned by territorial authorities including city councils in urban areas and district councils in rural areas. As at 2021, there are 67 different asset-owning organisations.
There is widespread evidence of ageing and failing infrastructure for the three waters (drinking water, stormwater and wastewater), and growing awareness of a multi-billion dollar national infrastructure deficit. In some regions there are forecast to be huge, and in some cases unaffordable cost challenges for local authorities.
The challenges for local government include funding infrastructure deficits and preparing for large re-investments that are estimated to require $110 billion over the next 30 to 40 years.  As one example of the scale of expenditure required, in May 2021, the Wellington City Council approved a 10 year plan that included expenditure of $2.7 billion on water pipe maintenance and upgrades in Wellington city, and an additional $147 to $208 million for plant upgrades at the Moa Point wastewater treatment plant.
There are also significant challenges in meeting statutory requirements for the safety of drinking water, and the environmental expectations for management of stormwater and wastewater. Climate change adaptation, and providing for population growth add to these challenges.
A major programme of nationwide reform is being developed by central government, with the aim of rationalizing the provision of services for the three waters. It is proposed that a small number of large publicly owned entities will be established to own and manage the three waters assets across the country. The reforms include complete separation of asset ownership from the existing territorial authorities. The nationwide reform programme is being developed in partnership with local government and iwi/Māori as the Crown’s Treaty partner.
The privately owned water supply schemes that service many small rural areas are not included in the reform programme.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015. At its heart are 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including the sixth of the 17 goals which is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. While the New Zealand Government has expressed its commitment to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, it is yet to announce any specific policy or data strategy for that purpose.
Access to drinking water provided by registered suppliers (as opposed to self-supply) can be estimated from the reports into the safety of drinking water from registered suppliers that are published by Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR). As of 15 April 2020,[update] the Drinking Water online database included records of water supplied to an estimated population of approximately 4.1 million. This indicates that around 85% of the estimated total population of New Zealand at that date receive water from a registered supplier. The balance of the population (approximately 15%) rely upon small self-managed supplies including roof rainwater collection systems.
In their National Performance Review 2018–19, Water New Zealand reported that the proportion of the properties connected to water and wastewater services varies from around one third of properties in the Far North to all properties in most major centres.
Three waters assets and services
Key data about the three waters (water, wastewater, and stormwater) is made publicly available in a National Performance Review undertaken by an industry body Water New Zealand. This review has been undertaken annually since 2008, to provide a performance assessment of service provision and the protection of public health and the environment. The participants in the 2018-19 review included two Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs), and 42 of 64 territorial authorities with responsibility for three waters services. These participating organisations have responsibility for approximately 4,470,000 New Zealanders (approximately 91% of the population).
Three waters assets
The assets covered in the 2018-19 review are shown in this table.
|Water treatment plants||351||$2,581|
|Length of water supply pipes (km)||44,472||$10,015|
|Wastewater treatment plants||240||$3,356|
|Length of waste water pipes (km)||28,082||$12,974|
|Length of stormwater pipes (km)||17,710||$11,040|
|Total asset value||$39,969|
Capital and operational expenditure
The 2018-19 National Performance Review provides a summary of capital and operational expenditure on the three waters assets.
|Type of expenditure||Water supply||Wastewater||Stormwater|
Population with reticulated services
Participants in the 2018-19 National Performance Review have responsibility for jurisdictions covering 4,536,520 New Zealanders (approximately 93% of the total population). The proportion of the population in those jurisdictions that receives reticulated water and wastewater services is shown in this table.
|Population not served||1,325,554||(27%)||1,013,270||(21%)|
|Total properties served||1,466,511||1,409,932|
Average water and wastewater charges are slightly under $850 per year. However, water and wastewater charges vary significantly around New Zealand. Consumers in some areas are paying over three times as much as for water as those in other areas ($863/year versus $262/year). For wastewater, the range in charges is even greater at over ten times as much ($1,217 versus $116/year). In the most expensive jurisdiction, the average customer will have a water and wastewater bill of over $1,700. For those who depend on the single living-alone superannuation payment, the water and wastewater bill in the most expensive region constitutes over 8% of their income. For those dependent on the sole parent support payment, it constitutes more than 10% of their income.
The challenges for the affordability of modern safe water supplies in small townships were highlighted in 2021 when the Buller District Council proposed to increase the water rates in Inangahua Junction. The increased rate was proposed to be $1800 per household by 2025 (almost four times the current rate), and $2000 by 2030. A former councillor said: "Most people in Inangahua Junction are pensioners; they're on low fixed incomes and they simply have no ability to pay these sorts of fees". The mayor of Buller District said that the planned increases related to the requirements to comply with government-mandated drinking water standards for public water supplies.
In February 2020, the Auditor-General published a report reviewing how well public organisations are managing water resources and delivering water-related services. In the introduction to the report, the Auditor-General observed a lack of clarity about the issues in managing the three waters, how to address them, and who will deliver programmes of work. The statement called for improved national leadership.
Reform of policy and regulation
Initial investigations and announcements
In mid 2017, the Government launched a review of the regulation and supply arrangements of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater (three waters). This review ran in parallel with the later stages of the Inquiry into the Havelock North drinking water contamination of 2016. The Three Waters Review was published in January 2019.
- establish a new, dedicated drinking water regulator
- extend regulatory coverage to all drinking water suppliers, except individual household self-suppliers
- provide a multi-barrier approach to drinking water treatment and safety
- strengthen government oversight and stewardship of wastewater and stormwater services
- provide transitional arrangements of up to five years to allow water suppliers to adjust to the regulations.
The Taumata Arowai–the Water Services Regulator Bill was introduced to Parliament on 12 Dec 2019.  The Government indicated a separate Water Services bill would be proposed at a later date to give effect to decisions to implement system-wide reforms to the regulation of drinking water and source water, and targeted reforms to improve the regulation and performance of wastewater and stormwater networks.
On 28 January 2020, the Minister of Local Government, Hon Nanaia Mahuta, released Cabinet papers and minutes setting out intentions for reform of service delivery and funding arrangements for the three waters services nationwide.
The Cabinet paper referred to two key challenges facing New Zealand's three waters service delivery: affordability and capability. The paper referred to the cumulative effect of increasing capital and operating costs to meet infrastructure challenges, and constrained sector capability to address key public health and environmental challenges. It noted that these challenges are particularly acute for smaller council and non-council drinking water suppliers, with smaller ratepayer and consumer funding bases.
The paper described the current situation (in most regions), where individual councils supply and manage water systems and services alongside their other duties. There was specific reference to Wellington Water (which manages the water assets of six councils), as an example of one approach to service delivery that had successfully built capability through the scale of operations. However, the paper also noted that Wellington Water currently has no ability to make trade-offs between operating and capital expenditure, nor can it cross-subsidise between owners or ratepayers in different districts.
A transition is envisaged, to a next stage where water services are fully 'ring-fenced' from other council services, with charges for ratepayers specifically identifying the water services in their rates. At this stage, Councils may share service provision with other councils. The final stage envisaged in the paper is the full transfer of asset ownership of the water assets to a new entity governed by an independent Board of Directors, and with specialist employees who would focus on water services.
The Government indicated that it would work in partnership with local government to explore options for transitioning councils to new service delivery arrangements, seeking safer, more affordable and reliable three waters services. The first step was to support the investigation of opportunities within regions for collaborative approaches to water service delivery.
Hawke's Bay investigation
As an initial step towards the proposed reforms, on 27 January 2020 the Government announced funding of $1.55m for an investigation of opportunities for greater coordination in three waters service delivery across the Hawke's Bay region, involving five councils: Napier City Council, Hastings District Council, Central Hawke's Bay District Council, Wairoa District Council and Hawke's Bay Regional Council.
Otago and Southland investigation
In May 2020, ten councils in the Otago and Southland regions commenced the development of a business case for a collaborative approach to managing the three waters assets. The business case was expected to take about eight months and would be followed by public consultation. The Government agreed to cover half of the cost, with a deadline for councils to consider changes to service delivery models by the end of 2021. The ten councils involved in the investigation were Dunedin City Council, Central Otago District Council, Clutha District Council, Queenstown Lakes District Council, Waitaki District Council, Otago Regional Council, Gore District Council, Invercargill City Council, Southland District Council and Environment Southland.
The New Zealand Infrastructure Commission published an opinion piece in May 2020 supporting the reform of service delivery in the three waters sector nationwide. The Chief Executive advocated consolidation of asset management and service delivery functions from multiple councils into much larger entities. The main benefits would be to capture economies of scale and free up councils from the specialist technical requirements of managing utility services.
In April 2021, the mayor of the small Hawke’s Bay town of Wairoa expressed concerns that the transfer of the three waters assets from local councils into large regional entities would have serious consequences for local government.Some Māori leaders from Ruapehu, Whanganui, South Taranaki and Rangitīkei said that the creation of large entities to manage water infrastructure would make it more difficult for local Māori to be part of policy-making.
In a press release in May 2021, the Leader of the Opposition, Judith Collins claimed that the government was planning to transfer 50% of the publicly-owned water assets in the South Island to Ngāi Tahu. However, this was denied by Dr Te Maire Tau, the chair of Te Kura Taka Pini, the Ngāi Tahu freshwater group. Dr Tau said that Ngāi Tahu did not want to own water infrastructure, and believed that it should remain in public ownership, but that Ngāi Tahu was seeking a share of governance responsibilities.
Fresh water resources
New Zealand enjoys high rainfall, especially along its west coast and the country is notable for its many large, and sometimes braided rivers. However, although the population is relatively small, the population density in North Island is much greater than in South Island where most of the rain falls.
In New Zealand more than 10% of the population depends on roof-collected rainwater systems for their drinking water – especially in rural areas that are not served by municipal town water supplies. Roof-collected rainwater consumption is also popular because the general public has the perception that rainwater is "pure" and safe to drink. Indeed, the risk of disease arising from roof-collected rainwater consumption can be low, providing that the water is visibly clear, has little taste or smell and, most importantly, the storage and collection of rainwater is via a properly maintained tank and roof catchment system.
The low level of water pollution and the relative abundance of rain-fall ensures that water shortages are relatively uncommon. Regional authorities provide abstraction, treatment and distribution infrastructure to most developed areas. Many municipal systems draw water from deep aquifers thus avoiding the cost of long pipelines. Some of these aquifer fed systems such as that serving Christchurch was of sufficiently good quality that no disinfection of final water was practised until the recent earthquake events. Following restoration of the network the water is no longer chlorinated. Water taken from shallower or less secure aquifers are at risk of contamination.
Water supply volumes and losses
The 2018-19 National Performance Review includes data about water supply volumes from the participants in the study. Residential consumption is estimated because only around 50% of residential properties nationwide have a meter installed. Water New Zealand noted that in this annual review, the total volume of non-residential water use is under-represented, and residential consumption overestimated, as some participants did not provide volumes of non-residential water use.
|Water end use||Volume|
|Non-residential water consumption||127,184,998|
|Residential consumption estimate||316,963,581|
|Total network water loss||119,010,271|
|Water supplied to system||563,158,850|
The median of the average daily water consumption across participants is 263 litres per person per day, but there is a large spread in residential water efficiency in different areas.
In the 2019 fiscal year, participants reported 119 million cubic meters of water was lost in their water supply systems, equivalent to over 47,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This constituted 18% of the 555 million cubic meters of water supplied to the system.
Havelock North contamination 2016
From 12 to 29 August 2016 the town of Havelock North experienced New Zealand's largest recorded outbreak of waterborne disease. Campylobacter entered the town's water supply. Of the town's 13,000 residents, 5,500 fell ill, 45 were hospitalised and four died.
In September 2016, the Government announced an Inquiry into the outbreak, in two stages. Stage 1 focused on identifying what happened, what caused the outbreak, and assessing the conduct of those responsible for providing safe drinking water to Havelock North. Stage 2 of the Inquiry addressed lessons learned for the future and steps to be implemented to reduce the likelihood of such an outbreak occurring again.   
The drinking water for Havelock North was sourced from an aquifer under the Heretaunga Plains (the Te Mata aquifer) that was thought to be a confined aquifer secure from contaminants. The District Council did not treat water drawn from this aquifer before it was distributed to consumers. During a period of heavy rain, a paddock adjacent to the bore became inundated, and sheep faeces caused contamination of the bore water. The Inquiry found that in July 1998, there had been a previous incident of contamination of drinking water at Havelock North, but that the lessons from that incident had been forgotten. Another key finding was that several of the parties with responsibility for the water supply regime for Havelock North had failed to adhere to the high levels of care and diligence needed to protect public health and to avoid outbreaks of serious illness. The Inquiry concluded that a higher standard of care was needed, similar to that applied in the ﬁelds of medicine and aviation where the consequences of a failure could similarly be illness, injury or death.
The recommendations arising from Stage 2 of the Inquiry including wide-ranging proposals for legislative and regulatory changes to drive systematic improvements in the management of drinking water nationwide. The recommendations also included mandatory treatment of all drinking water networks and certain self-supplied systems, and the review of drinking water standards and guidelines. 
Subsequent research findings
The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) carried out genome-sequencing on the campylobacter strain that was found in sick people during the outbreak. The subsequent research has shown that some people living outside Havelock North, but who visited the area during the time of the outbreak, were also affected. The study suggests that the total number of campylobacteriosis cases traceable to the water contamination could be as high as 8320, with up to 2230 of these living outside of Havelock North.
Annual drinking-water quality report - 2017-18
The Ministry of Health provides an annual report on the drinking-water quality of all registered networked drinking-water supplies serving populations of more than 100 people. The report for the period 1 July 2017 to 30 June 2018 describes compliance with the requirements of the Drinking-water Standards for New Zealand and progress made towards meeting the requirements of the Health Act 1956.
|Water complies with all the legislative requirements under the Act||3,250,000||(84.7%)|
|Implementation of a water safety plan for the supply has commenced||3,810,000||(99.3%)|
|Met the bacteriological requirements of Standards||3,751,000||(97.7%)|
|Met all the monitoring requirements in the Standards||3,531,000||(92.0%)|
All significant sized urban developments are served by municipal sewers which drain to modern treatment works with final discharges to river or the sea. Rural communities and isolated housing is served by septic tanks or by chemical toilets or earth closets depending on location and usage. The 135 wastewater treatment plants discharge into the following type of environment:
- Estuary 5
- Groundwater 8
- Lake 1
- Land 26
- Long Sea Outfall 22
- Near Shore Outfall 7
- River/stream/drain 62
- Wetland 4
In its summary of the findings from the National Performance Review 2018–19, Water New Zealand observed that management of stormwater quality is not yet widespread. Stormwater quality monitoring programmes and/or catchment management plans are in place for just over half the Review's participants. Consents for stormwater discharge are even less widespread. Only eight participants had all stormwater discharges consented. Most commonly, participants had consents for less than 10% of the network, and six participants had no stormwater discharge consents whatsoever.
In 2018, the Auditor-General reviewed the management of stormwater by three councils, to gain insights into how these councils were managing the risk of flooding in their communities. The councils reviewed were Dunedin City Council, Porirua City Council, and Thames-Coromandel District Council. One of the main conclusions was that the three councils had a reactive approach to understanding flood risk, by relying mostly on the information collected after a flood. The lack of forecasting could lead to a poor understanding of the risk and cost of future events, and inadequate preparation. The review also noted that the three councils were spending less than the annual depreciation amount on re-investment in stormwater systems, and that under-investment could lead to stormwater systems failing to contain and minimise flooding.
In the summary of findings, the Auditor-General noted that all councils face challenges when managing their stormwater systems, including ageing infrastructure, limited capacity, managing costs to the community, and having the right people and skills in their organisations. The main recommendations concern the need for improved investment decision making, based upon better information about flood risks, and the performance and capacity of stormwater assets.
Asset management and investment planning
An economist from Infometrics questioned whether the investment programme was focussed in the areas of greatest need, and pointed to New Zealand's ageing water infrastructure. Their analysis of council expenditure plans found that investment in the three waters is expected to be $17.2 billion over the next decade, split between $11.6 billion in waste and stormwater, and $5.6 billion for water supply. However, more than half of the planned investment in waste and stormwater is to replace assets that are at the end of their working life, with only a quarter of the money allocated for additions and improvements. They claimed that further new investment in water infrastructure is needed to cope with a growing population and the demands of the Government's three waters review, aimed at improving the quality of drinking water, storm water and waste water.
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The human right to water and sanitation
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Progress update – February 2020 – Three waters service delivery and funding arrangements
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