Preparing and responding to drinking water incidents and emergencies

Preparing and responding to drinking water incidents and emergencies

This article was first published in the March/April edition of Water

Matt Carey, lead advisor response management at Taumata Arowai talks about establishing an incident and emergency management function at the new water services regulator. He explains who does what in the case of an emergency and emphasises the importance of being prepared.

We only need to look at the recent severe weather events or the Covid-19 pandemic to see how critical it is to be prepared for an emergency.

Lead advisor response management for Taumata Arowai, Matt Carey has been travelling around the country to meet with drinking water suppliers. He’s been trying to understand their issues and concerns and how they plan to make sure they can keep providing safe drinking water in the event of an incident or emergency.

Matt Carey, Taumata Arowai.

“It can be difficult, and some large operations might only have one qualified person operating a supply to over 5000 consumers. It’s one of the biggest risks for suppliers, particularly in this Covid-19 environment or in the event of a disaster.”

He encourages suppliers to consider their operations as critical infrastructure.

“Natural disasters have a devastating impact on infrastructure. Think about how you will sustain your operation through disasters such as drought, earthquake, and flooding.

Matt is no newcomer to the field of emergency and response management. He’s spent 18 years serving in the New Zealand Army with most of his time working in bomb disposal. His three deployments took him to the Middle East and Afghanistan where he worked on clearing landmines and counter terrorism among other duties.

Back home he’s been involved in the emergency responses to some of our biggest tragedies – the March 15 terrorist attack in Christchurch and the Whaakari/White Island eruption.

The role of Taumata Arowai in an emergency

When it comes to large disasters and civil defence emergencies, Taumata Arowai will support and contribute to the drinking water component of the broader emergency response. While suppliers need to provide a level of service to the community in these events, Taumata Arowai will support suppliers to return their operation to business as usual.

Matt explains the role of Taumata Arowai is twofold.

“One part is to provide coordinating information about the sector. This means acting in support of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) or other emergency controllers providing liaison and situational awareness of the sector and their level of service delivery to the community in an emergency.

“The other part is to provide direction and support to the water services sector, advocating for resources to enable them to respond, recover and continue their service delivery. This is a role that has been filled by Water New Zealand in the absence of other central coordination and is a role that I’m keen to collaborate with them on.”

Matt believes suppliers are best placed to respond to incidents as they have the capability and understanding of their water supply systems and operation. One of the common challenges he often hears about is attracting qualified people into the utilities industry.

“Take a broader view and look at the dependencies of your operation like power and communications. Multiple water supplies may be affected, and water carriers may not be available to fill the gap.”

In the case of a drinking water incident

In the past, some suppliers have relied on drinking water assessors to inform, approve, and sometimes lead a response to an incident or emergency. The drinking water assessor role no longer exists and Taumata Arowai has different expectations.

“In the case of an incident, it’s the suppliers’ responsibility to ensure public health is protected, consumers are informed and to rectify the problem.

“They also need to notify Taumata Arowai. We’d like to see recovery from incidents and enduring steps put in place to prevent them from happening again.”

Between 2019 and 2020 more than 490,000 New Zealanders were advised to boil their water because it was not safe to drink. There were 26 permanent and 51 temporary boil water notices in place.

“We are hoping, with better planning and preparedness, that we will see a reduction in the need to issue boil water notices following predictable or expected natural events, such as heavy rain.”

Planning and being prepared

Matt reckons that a number of suppliers are doing well in engaging with regional partners and planning for broader disasters.

“Establishing relationships with key groups and people in your community is important. This may include whānau, hapū and iwi, Lifelines coordinators, local Civil Defence controllers (based within councils), and Civil Defence Emergency Management groups (CDEM).” Drinking water safety planning helps suppliers to be prepared. It’s a continuous risk management process focusing on identifying, assessing, and managing the risks across the whole drinking water supply system – from where the water is sourced to the point of supply to consumers.

A requirement of the Water Services Act 2021 (the Act) is for suppliers to prepare and submit a Drinking Water Safety Plan to Taumata Arowai (or alternatively comply with an Acceptable Solution, which will be available to particular supply types and circumstances). Suppliers must identify in their plans how they will respond to events and emergencies.

Another key objective and requirement of the Act is for Taumata Arowai to give effect to Te Mana o te Wai, to the extent it applies to our functions and duties. This obligation also applies to all suppliers who operate under the Act.

Te Mana o te Wai is a fundamental concept focused on restoring and preserving the balance between wai (water), taiao (the wider environment), and tāngata (people), now and in the future.

The impact of giving effect to Te Mana o te Wai is something Tauamta Arowai is working through as we implement the Act. Matt encourages all suppliers to turn their minds to what Te Mana o te Wai means for them, particularly how this impacts their response planning.

Taumata Arowai prepares for an emergency

As a new water services regulator, Taumata Arowai has been testing its incident management systems and processes in preparation for a drinking water emergency.

The first exercise involved a scenario of insufficient supply due to chronic drought becoming an acute crisis. This was tested with Far North District Council and a range of central and regional stakeholders. Another exercise was held with Wellington Water, the Regional Public Health and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) focusing on a pressure drop scenario resulting in a backflow incident.

Matt shares some of the key learnings from these exercises. “It’s important to have access to forecasting data and scientific

advice, to have established relationships and open lines of communications with stakeholders, and clear decision points. For example, deciding on the threshold or level before changing the plan or initiating action.”

Taumata Arowai is planning more exercises including a major disaster scenario later in the year. If there are a number of suppliers in a particular region interested in participating in this exercise, get in touch at

The reality is incidents and emergencies can happen at any time. They can have a major impact on our water supply, infrastructure, people and environment. It’s important drinking water suppliers are well prepared and plan for these events.

For more information

  •  Visit
  •  Go to the Water New Zealand website to see a recent Taumata Arowai webinar on Drinking Water Safety and Source Water Risk Management Planning.
  • 25 May 2022: Join Taumata Arowai and the Department of Internal Affairs in part two of the Water New Zealand pre- conference workshop at Claudelands in Hamilton.

This report was prepared by Taumata Arowai