100% Pure? The polluted facts behind New Zealand’s tourism claim

One of the world’s most recognisable tourism taglines is “100% Pure New Zealand.” But recent developments have cast doubt on the quality of its environment – especially the quality of its water. By Jeremy Torr.

LAUNCESTON, 10 October 2017. In late 2016 a deadly campylobacterosis outbreak hit the New Zealand (NZ) town of Havelock North. The outbreak affected some 5,500 of the town’s 14,000 residents, resulted in 45 being hospitalised, and possibly contributed to at least three deaths according to the NZ government Department of Internal Affairs (NZDIA).

The water-borne infection was later described by NZDIA as “shaking public confidence in a fundamental service.” More broadly, it raised worrying questions about the health of NZ’s 100% Pure tourism claim.

Steve Hrudey: "The water here isn't safe."

Steve Hrudey: "The water here isn't safe."

Dr Steve Hrudey, an Emeritus Professor from the University of Alberta, Canada, recently visited NZ and spoke about the Havelock North outbreak. Hrudey said the state of water in NZ was putting the country's clean image to shame.

"Selling a clean, pristine environmental image along with unsafe water is not reasonable,” he said, adding that some of the practices he had noted in NZ indicated that: “the water [here] isn't safe. The concept of secure groundwater is a huge problem.”

Selling a clean, pristine environmental image along with unsafe water is not reasonable.
— Dr Steve Hrudey, Emeritus Professor, University of Alberta

Don’t drink the water

Following a government enquiry into the Havelock North outbreak, the NZDIA concluded the 2016 outbreak of poisoning came from drinking water contaminated by campylobacter bacterium, and that sheep faeces were the likely source of the campylobacter. Worse, Hrudey warned that “ … if nothing changes, it will happen again.”

Cyanobacteria pollution found in a number of NZ lakes including Lake Horowhenua.

Cyanobacteria pollution found in a number of NZ lakes including Lake Horowhenua.

The official report on the outbreak estimated the cost at over $21 million, with over 5000 households affected. Local government disruption accounted for around 20 percent, and the business community incurred around 6 percent of the overall cost.

But most significantly, it was suggested that the poisoning outbreak and publicity could not be quantified in monetary terms. It suggested that issues such as personal stress, loss of public faith in the water supply, and scarring of the community adding to a broader societal bill. As well as a loss of reputation to potential tourists.

All across NZ, water quality is coming under increasing scrutiny. It is being affected by three major issues: sediment from deforestation, nitrogen and phosphorus from livestock and fertiliser, and aggressive toxic bacteria from livestock excrement and algal blooms.

A report by Dr Mike Joy from Massey University, Palmerston North notes that water-quality monitoring sites show worsening trends over at least the last 20 years. “The impact of excess nutrients [shows] 44% of monitored lakes being so polluted by nutrients they are now classed as ‘eutrophic’: that is they have more … than they can assimilate,” he says.

Warning signs are often seen at lakes and rivers, such as this at Waimakariri_River. But few comply and children can be found swimming. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Warning signs are often seen at lakes and rivers, such as this at Waimakariri_River. But few comply and children can be found swimming. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Agricultural culprit

And a study published in the Journal of Animal Science has pointed the finger mostly at agriculture. It noted watersheds with concentrated livestock populations were shown to discharge as much as 5 to 10 times more polluting nutrients than those in cropland or forestry. The study also noted that pathogens in urea and faeces from grazing animals can move from the fields into surface water or ground water, particularly from unfenced properties like many in NZ.

Mike Joy: Trends reveal a worsening of water quality over the years in NZ

Mike Joy: Trends reveal a worsening of water quality over the years in NZ

More ominously, Massey’s Joy notes that today, NZ has the highest global per-capita frequency of the animal-transmissible diseases like coliform enteritis, campylobacteriosis, cryptosporidiosis and salmonellosis. The NZ Ministry of Health estimates indicate that up to 34,000 New Zealanders contract waterborne diseases every year. And with an estimated 6.5 million dairy and 3.6 million beef cattle along with some 30 million sheep all busy defecating somewhere near a NZ stream or river, it isn’t hard to see that the problem is a dirty big one.

Unfortunately, the water purity problem is not confined to NZ’s north island. Lake Forsyth, a natural body of water in Canterbury not far from picture-postcard Christchurch, has seen several poisonous algal blooms connected with the deaths of pets and farm livestock. One report indicated that recent levels of the toxic cyanobacteria in the lake were 20mm³/litre, about 10 times the normal trigger level for an algal bloom, and that last year the levels reached some 2000mm³/litre - one thousand times the normal trigger level.


Although Canterbury’s local water monitoring and planning body ECan says it is working towards a safe, usable and accessible water supply for all, its website also contains advisories on local unsafe sources, monitoring tools for wary drinkers, and warning signs at polluted waters like Lake Forsyth.

Not just the farmers

ECan also keeps a register of land it considers “contaminated when there are any hazardous substances that could pose a threat to human health or the environment.” This includes orchards, market gardens and other land where chemicals have been stored or spraying occurred; service stations and storage of hazardous substances; timber treatment sites and some industrial sites.” Not that reassuring for those seeking the “100% Pure” destination touted worldwide by NZ tourism.

NZ has the highest global per-capita frequency of animal-transmissible diseases...
— Dr. Mike Joy, Massey University

The problems facing NZ are making other land users around the world look at what they are doing now – and planning for the future. Tasmania-based Rachel Brown, Director of Landly Pty Ltd and DairyTas Sustainable Dairying Adviser notes that a key issue in NZ is the lack of real measures on the ground. “A vast amount of money was spent on studies, models, meetings, salaries and so on. [But] the actual physical environment and what practically needed to be done to make a difference didn’t get priority,” she said.

Brown says that the main challenge now for NZ is large cow numbers and highly permeable soils, where leaching can be challenging to manage. And basic things like getting livestock out of creeks, drains and waterways and providing off-stream watering.

“In Tasmania we are putting a big emphasis on consultative water quality improvement plans so that we can understand the science behind water quality in our catchments and work on the most realistic and cost effective ways to improve it,” she adds.

Already, warning voices have been raised within the NZ tourism industry. The Tourism Export Council NZ (TECNZ) has asserted that continuing problems with water quality could dent NZ’s longstanding reputation for clean, green holiday making. It recently issued a statement claiming that it was “… concerned that we are heading down a path where freshwater quality could lead to reputational damage to [the] ‘clean green’ marketing promise we share with the world.”

TECNZ warns that current NZ government policy on clean water is “nothing more than a PR-stunt from government” that continues to ignore scientists and expert opinion about the state of NZ freshwater.

“The Clean Water consultation document, which indicates 90 percent of New Zealand’s rivers will be swimmable by 2040, is a mass of smoke and mirrors which fails to address responsibility for fresh waterways pollution,” it said. Lesley Immink, until recently CEO at TECNZ, said it is incredible that the NZ Government is solely focused on protecting the economic wealth of an industry sector that continues to pollute the environment.

“The people of New Zealand are starting to take notice [of poor water quality] and it won’t be long before our international reputation is damaged and we’ll have to suffer the consequences,” she warned.