Letters: Let’s learn from a past water supply tragedy

Saturday August 10, 2019 Published in Letters to the Editor
Rundown 1960's water treatment plants. 19080955 Rundown 1960's water treatment plants. 19080955

When the last section of our public water supply pipeline was commissioned in the early 1960s, many people became sick after drinking water from the new reticulated system, and this contributed to three deaths.


It may be beyond living memory for some, but I can clearly recall when, in 1963, a new pipeline was installed from Betela (Vaokura) meeting house, Kavera, Aroa, Rutaki to Vaimaanga meeting house zone.

Back in the day, the landowners consented for pipeline to be installed on private land, not within the legal ‘road reserve’, to prevent people accidentally falling in to the open pipe trench.  No machinery in those years, all trenching was done by pick and shovel manual labour by residents in the community.

The project was supervised by New Zealand’s Ministry of Works because we were under New Zealand administration.

This 4km section of pipeline took almost 11 months to complete, and it was the final section of Rarotonga’s original water supply ring main network. In 1964, the completed pipeline section was commissioned. Within a few days, many people in the above area became sickened after drinking water conveyed in the new pipeline. Many were admitted in to hospital and this disease outbreak contributed to the loss of three lives.

A subsequent inquiry identified the cause of the disease outbreak to be the failure to properly ‘flush and disinfect’ the new pipeline with chlorine prior to releasing water to consumers.

The inquiry also found that when the new shipment of AC pipes was stored in the Public Works Department yards in the open for a period of time, they became a “multi-level accommodation” for rats and mice in the vicinity. The rats built their nests and did their “mimi” and “tiko” (urine and faeces) in the pipes.

The detrimental health impact to residents’ welling was long term in the affected zone. Some of those who got sick never really fully recovered and many never reached the age of 70 years, my generation. I am the eighth of a family of 10 children, our mum took care of us by boiling water for drinking and many of my older siblings are over the age of 80s.

As a consequence of the above incident, the Government of the day commenced on building chlorination structures on Water intake lands as shown in the photos attached.

We still have the run-down concrete block buildings in Avana, Turangi, Takuvaine and Airport used to house the chlorination equipment. The lack of continued funding brought this project to its demise.

Prior to the 1960’s, Rarotonga’ s main export were citrus fruits and canned juice under the Raro brand. Water supply source from Takuvaine water intake to service that area was filtered and chlorinated.

We are at risk today with the high number of tourist venturing on to our water catchments as outdoor activities such as “cross island trek”. Where do they relieve themselves  (mimi and tiko)?

Many of the objectors to the proposed chlorination have lived overseas for many years, and have all consumed potable water (chlorinated). I have drunk potable water (chlorinated) in New Zealand and Australia in the seven years I was there for my education.

People in the Cook Islands have drunk large quantities of imported soft drinks, beer and fruit juice drink for many years – all made using potable water (chlorinated)

I have experience in swimming pool chlorination and also water for potable use.

The Vaiora factory, now Vaima, was established in the mid-1960s by our older brother Harry. He had the complete water treatment process involving settling, coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, disinfection (chlorine and UV) refrigeration system installed.

Te Mato Vai water supply upgrade project aims to achieve a similar result of safe drinking water on a much larger volume of water between 8.5 to 10 million litres of water daily.

Should we wait until more people get sick or lose their lives before we take action? I don’t think so – let’s learn from past mistakes and get a water supply that’s safe for all our people to drink from the tap.

Sam Napa Snr

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