The big picture – public health and the environment

‘Three Waters’ covers drinking water, wastewater and stormwater. Government says reform is needed because the current systems are not working for everyone. 


Hamilton’s water service is one of the best in the country. But we have recently faced prosecution for wastewater spills into the Waikato River, we want to do better in looking after our environment and we face financial challenges in how we cater for growth and fund improvements in coming years. There are big new costs coming for Council and its ratepayers to respond to new regulations and the impacts of climate change on waters services. In coming years we need hundreds of millions of dollars to replace and maintain stormwater systems which are coming to the end of their life.  

Other cities, towns and regions have greater challenges, and not all parts of New Zealand have the same quality of drinking water and wastewater management. Our residents and their families regularly travel and use water services supplied by other councils, whether it be through daily work or schooling, holidays, sports trips or entertainment. 

Successive Governments have had concerns over drinking water quality across the country, and contaminants entering rivers, lakes and harbours due to stormwater or wastewater incidents.  

Government says reform is vital to uphold Te Mana o Te Wai, the health of the environment, and the economy, build resilience to climate change and natural hazards, and unlock housing and growth. 

Government says every year, some 35,000 New Zealanders get sick from tap water that does not meet appropriate standards. 

It is estimated that nationally an average of 20% of drinking water is lost on the way to households through leaks in the networks. This is more than the volume of water supplied by Hamilton, Rotorua, Dunedin, and Christchurch City combined. 

Of 321 wastewater treatment plants in the country, more than 100 are not meeting required standards and 60 require upgrades to meet minimum standards under the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management. 

Stormwater (rainwater that runs off our roads, roofs, and land) ends up in our rivers, streams our lakes and eventually to the sea. It needs to be managed in a way which doesn’t carry harmful chemicals or waste into our waterways. Our stormwater system needs to be cope with periods of heavy rain without causing flooding for our properties.  

In 2021 there were thousands of wastewater overflows nationally (blockages or system failures). Out of 37 councils reviewed, there were 648 reported consent non-conformances in wastewater treatment plants. Some of the areas most in need of improvement are those least able to afford it. 

What is Te Mana o Te Wai?

Three Waters Reform includes statutory recognition for the Treaty of Waitangi and Te Mana o Te Wai.

Te Mana o Te Wai has been part of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management since 2014, though there have been changes to how the concept is described and how it must be applied.

Te Mana o Te Wai refers to the vital importance of water . When managing freshwater, it ensures the health and well-being of the water is being protected and human health needs are provided for enabling other uses of water.

Page reviewed: 17 Jun 2022 1:52pm