You are going on a holiday and you’re unsure if it might rain? You bring your raincoat anyway. There is no phone reception where you’re going? You may let someone know when you should be back. Would you drive a car with no seat belts and airbags? Although you may not think you will need them, you do want these features - just in case. These are examples of how we apply preventive risk management in our daily lives. The same approach is expected of a water supplier.
Principle 6 of drinking-water safety in New Zealand tells us to apply a preventive risk management approach. This requires a systematic assessment of risks throughout a drinking-water supply from source to tap, identification of the ways these risks can be managed, and control measures implemented to ensure that management is occurring properly.
Preventive risk management doesn’t mean we can prevent any possible outcome, but it does mean that we think of risks that can reasonably be expected in a structured way and apply controls that are appropriate. We wouldn’t drive a tank in the streets to prevent getting injured during a crash, but we all agree seat belts and airbags are probably appropriate controls. This is a standard applied universally to passenger vehicles. When it comes to preventative risk management for water suppliers, there are currently a range of approaches. This is where we see an inconsistent approach across the country and a varying degree of risk tolerance.
In addition to the risks for regular supply consumers, people’s expectations may be different based on the area they grew up in. Visitors to an area might not expect and look for boil water notices as ‘they have not experienced this before’. Think of people going on holiday, tourists or just your day visitor. Would they pick up on a boil water notice?
I believe a consistent approach in preventive risk management would help the industry to better manage supplies, the associated health risks and give confidence to consumers. This means exploring ways to reduce the human factor when we score risks. This may include, having a list of predefined improvements for some intolerable key risks such as a critical control point or a barrier against contamination where there is no mitigation for events like loss of equipment. A standardised response would be to have mandatory standby redundancy.
Preventive risk management is an essential part of operating water infrastructure and is required by legislation. I believe the industry would benefit from applying a consistent approach to determining risks and what controls are acceptable. Hopefully, this will then result in a more consistent service to the customer through prevention rather than reaction. To me, this means having sufficient redundancy, so we do not have to resort to a boil water notice in case of a single failure.
In the end we would all want water from the tap to be safe for consumption, whether that is at home or at your holiday destination. When you buy a new car, you can safely expect the seat belts and airbags to function the same as your previous car. We should be able to expect water supplies to be managed in a consistent manner.