Dave Armstrong is a playwright and satirist based in Wellington.
OPINION: Oh dear. I get up, and it’s cold, raining and the leaves and litter in the street have blocked the drains.
I do my civic duty with a broom handle and clear them, tripping on the uncollected recycled bottles put out the morning before. I need to get into town for a meeting, but there are record Covid cancellations, so a bus is not the greatest option. It’s just another day in Wellington.
I get dressed and clean my teeth before going out – at least the water is clean. What I don’t know, however, is that Wellington’s water hasn’t been properly fluoridated for six years.
A report into the Wellington Water fluoride failure by consultants MartinJenkins makes pretty damning reading, even for a Wellingtonian used to local body bungles, botch-ups, budget blow-outs and Bustastrophes.
What caused the Fluoridastrophe? According to the report, even though water fluoridation has a very positive effect on dental health, especially among children, Wellington Water saw fit not to inform anyone that it had stopped properly fluoridating our water. Where were the whistleblowers? Perhaps they were all off work with toothache.
The trouble with fluoride, as the anti-fluoridation crowd will love to tell you, is that while in tiny amounts it can greatly reduce tooth decay, in large amounts it can harm you. People old enough to remember swimming in a school pool just after it’s been chlorinated with pellets, and the chlorine hasn’t quite dissolved, will know what I mean.
So it seems that fluoride regulations focus more on the safety of drinking water than the dental health of thousands of Wellingtonians. In our risk-averse times, overdosing on fluoride is more of a problem than not fluoridating enough. In May 2021, the water supply at Te M?rua was overdosed twice in one month. Luckily, the problem was spotted before the water reached residents.
So what do you do in such situations? Tell your board that they better bloody improve the ageing and unreliable fluoride infrastructure or else? Go to the media and plead the case for more central and local government investment in water infrastructure? It seems that everyone just kept quiet.
Regional Public Health, now part of Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand, appears to have known that for at least the past six years, fluoridation was administered just 20% of the time at two of Wellington’s four water treatment plants, but said nothing.
Wellington Water’s own board knew nothing about the situation and no-one told them. “Although a lot of people knew something needed to be done, people were assuming that someone else was taking responsibility for leading the response,” said the MartinJenkins report.
But more damning is the fact that in October 2021, emails from some suggested that the councils which own Wellington Water should be told what was up. But the organisation didn’t want to do that until there was a firm plan in place. In other words – keep them in the dark and feed them unfluoridated water until we know what the hell to do. That is appalling management and communications.
Wellington Water, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on communications consultants in the past, was arguing that not communicating with its board was the best approach.
Then the Wellington Water board unwittingly lied to the public by saying fluoride had been switched off at two plants in February 2022. In fact, it had been turned off at Te M?rua in May 2021 and at Gear Island in November.
“I am confident there was no deliberate attempt to hide the length of time that fluoride had been turned off at the two plants,” said Doug Martin of MartinJenkins. Great, so in other words, they’re not liars, just useless.
So how can such problems be avoided in the future? Of course, more investment is needed in our water infrastructure. But such bad communication and management by Wellington Water makes me think that city councillors who said they were previously not alerted by Wellington Water to the parlous state of our water infrastructure might have a point.
The report also recommends that Wellington Water’s board has “the right collective experience and knowledge to govern effectively”. That’s a good point, and I note the lack of water engineers and other experts on the current board. However, if they are not being presented with vital information by those at the fluoride face then I’m afraid they will need to advertise for specialist psychics, fortune-tellers and soothsayers in the future to know what the hell is going on.
As various groups around the country protest against Three Waters – often with unsubtly racist comments and cartoons against ‘iwi vs Kiwi’ co-governance – I look at the corporate management model of Wellington Water, with its highly paid PR consultants, its awful communications and lamentably long list of failures.
Three Waters is far from perfect, and could be improved, but compared to the situation we have in Wellington and many other regions, I find myself saying, “bring it on”.