Not surprised to see that the Government has confirmed the Drinking Water Subsidy Scheme is being put on hold and reviewed. The subsidy aims to improve drinking water supplies in small communities of under 5000 people, and improve life for the 9% of the population whose current supply is sub-standard.
Those of us living in cities and most towns have pretty much come to take for granted the provision of safe drinking water to our homes. For our grandfathers it was of course one of the major infrastructure issues of the day, a bit like fibre-optic broadband is for us now. Initially it looks a little bizzare that the Nats are in the same few weeks announcing details of a $1.5b high tech fibre plan, with especial focus on rural areas… while at the same time putting very much on hold the provision of a far more fundamental service to the same rural areas.
But we are not talking farmers here; if they live in the country they would be on their own farm, with their own water supply. No we are usually talking small communities of non-landowners, retired folk, farm workers and small contractors, rural Maori, the sort of low profile people who quietly make their lives in country on the margins of political influence. Now Tony Ryall is telling them that finally delivering a similar standard of safe water supply, that the rest of us have enjoyed for decades, is not ‘the best use of money’. He’s using the fairly lightweight excuse that because the current scheme is run on a ‘first-come, first-serve’ basis, that the poorest of communities might be getting shut by wealthier, more organised ones getting in first. That’s feeble, fixing this sort of access problem is routine for any competent Ministry.
Decades ago the dominant water treatment technologies were chemical coagulation/mixed media filtration systems, that are most effective at larger scales. They work really well at delivering large volumes of water but have quite high fixed costs, so for a long time there was a significant economic barrier to extending quality potable water to smaller communities.
The really dissapointing part is that the technology to deliver small cost-effective community level systems has recently become far more available. Newer systems use semi-permeable membranes (reverse osmosis) and UV sterilisation if necessary. Relatively small, robust and reliable systems, that are fully automated and operated remotely, are ideal for these small communities.
As I said above though, I’m not surprised National has put this on the back-burner. It won’t be a big high-profile emotive issue and they’ve likely done their political calculus and decided that these small communities… can just wait a bit longer.