Think of ‘pure’ water … the kind in a bottle. What springs to mind?
Probably images of vibrant water cascading over rocks, snow-capped mountains, a crystal clear river meandering its way through thick forest teeming with native birds. Like the depiction on Miracle Water’s website …
The aquifer under Tomoana is like an oasis in the desert and is protected from surface activity. Starting from the beautiful snow-capped Ruahine Ranges (home to New Zealand native birds), Tomoana’s aquifer is recharged with some of the world’s finest quality water from the Ruahine Ranges via the Ngaruroro River.
New Zealand Miracle Water extracts pure soft mineral water from their aquifer once it has been aged and naturally purified for 45-55 years. This natural artesian supply of water is free from bacteriological and viral contamination therefore no filtration or chemical treatment is required.
And from OnePure …
OnePure mineral water comes from New Zealand, a green landscape of forests, mountains, glaciers, and rivers, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. New Zealand’s isolation and primarily rural landscape make it the ideal location from which to source premium mineral water. From the pristine forest ranges of wild New Zealand, we bring you the taste of purity in OnePure mineral water.
You’ll probably recognise Miracle Water and OnePure as Hawke’s Bay’s start-up water bottling merchants, the first already shipping Heretaunga aquifer water overseas, the latter to begin its production later this year. Vanguards of what could become a burgeoning industry in Hawke’s Bay.
Only 2% of water currently extracted from the Heretaunga aquifer (nine consents, 4.25 million cubic metres) is allocated to water bottlers, but there’s no upper limit on the consents or volume that could be granted. Unlike farmers and growers, there’s no ‘natural’ limit on the water needed.
When ‘Hawke’s Bay’ exports a Bostock apple or a Firstlight venison steak or a Te Mata Estate Coleraine, we – and our overseas customers – know exactly what the product is. Indeed its pedigree can be traced to its original orchard, paddock or vineyard.
One might think it would be easier still to vouch for pure water.
But in reality there is no such thing as pure. Pure water would simply be hydrogen and oxygen. Even when water is ‘purified’ it still retains some of its mineral qualities. All water contains traces of what it has touched on its journey from its origin to its final destination, or extraction point. This constitutes the water’s make-up, its DNA.
The overall quality of natural fresh water is further modified by local land-use and its varying discharges. These individual qualities make each water source unique.
So a more accurate description would be ‘natural potable’ water. It doesn’t have quite the same ring as ‘Pure’ or ‘Miracle’. However, the basic expectation of anyone consuming water, whether from a bottle or the tap, is that the water is free from contaminants.
Only 2% of water currently extracted from the Heretaunga aquifer is allocated to water bottlers, but there’s no ‘natural’ limit.
Our aquifer water is frequently referred to as the ‘world’s finest water’, mineral rich, naturally purified and free from bacteria and other contamination – so much so it does not require filtration or chemical treatment. When we learn that Miracle Water has in fact been recalled from China after exceeding the Chinese maximum acceptable level for nitrites, naturally, we snap to attention!
Exposure to nitrate and nitrite mainly occurs from consuming food and water that contain these chemicals. Sources of nitrate and nitrite can find their way into our water via many potential sources – poorly maintained wastewater treatment plants, septic tanks, industrial waste and land runoff containing fertilizers and animal waste.
Excess nitrate and nitrite can cause methemoglobinemia (Blue-baby syndrome), a condition that decreases the ability of the blood to carry oxygen to the tissues. This mainly affects infants under the age of six months and can be fatal. High nitrite levels, driven by nitrates in the water, would be a particular concern for Miracle
Water, as they proclaim: “NZ Miracle Water would like to see fresh New Zealand water being used for mixing New Zealand infant formula across Asia and the Middle East”.
Do we have excess nitrates in the Heretaunga aquifer? Or was Miracle Water’s recall due to production issues?
HBRC reports upward trends in nitrate levels in some monitoring wells in the Heretaunga aquifer. None of these levels yet exceed NZ drinking water standards, but 10% of sites have levels greater than 50% of the standard.
Miracle Water and OnePure claim it is not our aquifer at fault.
[Editor’s note: Both Miracle Water and OnePure declined interviews with BayBuzz, insisting on replying to written questions. A curious approach considering that both companies might anticipate a need to proactively build community goodwill.]
Miracle Water wrote: “It is not an issue for the aquifer, the problem occurred in our treatment system”. OnePure responded: “We have never had an issue with any of our shipments since production begun. We have a rigorous analysis and testing regime prior to a production run. Each batch is sent to an independent laboratory and released to the market only after positive test results are confirmed.”
Dirk Haselhoff, a Napier-based water expert, and director of Ozone Technologies, who has worked closely with the Heretaunga Plains aquifer for many years, comments on the situation:
“I am confident that any issues around the water quality are a result of bad handling and the treatment methods applied. Nitrites are not present in our local water, but are created by the treatment process. However, before we are able to be completely certain that the water is suitable for international export, a broad spectrum analysis of known contaminants should be undertaken. To our knowledge that has not been done to date. We can assume that the water treatment advisors used were not aware of the correct procedures to ‘treat’ water. It is essential we try and keep the water as close to its natural state as possible.”
Haselhoff feels the entire handling of the situation has been very poor. “The most important thing is to deliver a high quality product that meets the expectations of the customer. Good supermarkets want to know where the water is sourced, and that it is free from contaminants. For this to happen we need product security, stronger regulations, and appropriate governance at that level.”
So what, then, is the quality of the water being exported?
The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC) is only responsible for monitoring possible adverse effects on the environment. They monitor the volume and flow of the water extracted, and warrant works and structures are designed to the best engineering practices and are maintained to a safe and serviceable standard. They ensure the bore meets the necessary conditions that enable monitoring to take place, and that the well head is constructed in such a way that safeguards human drinking water from potential groundwater contamination.
“I am confident that any issues around the water quality are a result of bad handling and the treatment methods applied. Nitrites are not present in our local water, but are created by the treatment process.”
Bottlers do need to supply a yearly water sample from the well, which Haselhoff describes as “a very narrow field of tests, in fact most contaminants are not tested for”. Iain Maxwell, chief regulator at HBRC, notes: “We don’t have to guarantee that the quality of water being extracted meets the particular standards they are wanting to use it for.”
Both OnePure and Miracle Water claim that their source water meets the Drinking Water Standards for New Zealand. But these standards are not good enough for the Chinese market.
Drinking Water Standards New Zealand (DWSNZ) describes potable as being drinking water that does not contain or exhibit any determinant to any extent that exceeds the Maximum Acceptable Value (MAV). The values are based on the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) information. DWSNZ are applicable to water intended for drinking, whether it is from a public or private supply or where it is used. The exception is bottled water, which is subject to different standards.
Bottled water in New Zealand, as in most countries, is regulated as a food and falls under the Food Act 2014, National Programme 3. National Programme 3 requires businesses to use good food safety practices and keep written records. They must also ensure their staff have the right skills to produce the food, and record this. If a food is recalled the issue must be recorded. The records must include the extent of the issue, and the action taken.
All food sold in New Zealand must meet the requirements of the Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code. The principles within the code are set by WHO, in association with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
FAO/WHO developed a guide called Codex Alimentarius for food safety standards. The code plays a central role in the development and harmonisation of international food standards for health protection and trade. The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) manages New Zealand’s participation in the code. However, New Zealand participation in the CA only covers meat and dairy products.
MPI commented to BayBuzz on the recall of Miracle Water’s shipment:
“All food and beverages in New Zealand have to be safe and suitable for consumers. In the case of bottled water exports, MPI is not required to issue export certification. Bottle water exports may be issued with a ‘free-sale certificate’ (FSC). An FSC ensures the safety and suitability of the food product you are exporting. These are accepted by most countries including China, for border clearance purposes. It’s the responsibility of companies to ensure their bottled water meets the requirements of the destination markets. For China, specifically, the requirements can differ depending on, for example, whether the water is mineral water or standard drinking water.”
Effectively, no authorities in New Zealand are proactively validating the quality of exported water.
‘Mineral water’ and ‘Packaged water’ are subject to a different set of standards in China.
OnePure is marketing premium mineral water from the “pristine forest ranges of Wild New Zealand”, aimed at the high-end Chinese consumer. OnePure presents itself as a ‘top Zelanian’ water brand in China and is aiming to fill a highly profitable gap that currently exists in the Chinese market. Miracle Water are selling soft artesian spring water aimed at families, suppling the consumer with 7 litre pouches of water that are used in water machines. Mr Ju (managing director of Miracle Water) sees a natural synergy with Fonterra, who provide China with milk powder.
The National Standard of the Peoples Republic of China have set the maximum permissible level of nitrite in mineral water at 0.1 mg/L. The maximum permissible level of nitrite for packaged or spring water is 0.005 mg/L. New Zealand drinking water standards for nitrites are set at 0.2 mg/L for long term exposure, with short term exposure at 3 mg/L. On an international level there are great differences as to what is considered a ‘safe’ amount. FSANZ uses the standard set by WHO, which is 3mg/L. But China has opted for the minimum amount in water that is possibly destined for use in infant formula.
Treated or not?
Under the National Programme 3, any business that has to recall a product must take steps in order to rectify the problem. Miracle Water’s website claims its natural water from New Zealand’s unspoilt environment is so pure it needs no treatment is not true. All bottled water must be treated, as all natural water contains micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi.
However, as Miracle Water found out, the treatment process can be fraught with difficulties! Some procedures can actually introduce contaminants, known as Disinfectant By-Products (DBPs), into the finished product.
Evidently Miracle Water is taking steps to rectify their difficulties. They decided to get expert help. In early March 2016, they advertised on SEEK for a Water Quality Control Manager.
The role of this manager is to “ensure the quality of our water is up to the standards of the countries we will be exporting to”. The right applicant will need a plethora of skills from understanding an entire water treatment process that includes filtration, chemical treatment, ozone and UV applications, to monitoring and testing the water on a regular basis. The successful applicant must have experience in “manufacturing pure water”, ISO auditing systems, and have the skills to implement a Food Safety Management Programme. Ability to speak Mandarin would be advantageous.
Apparently it takes quite a bit of treatment – and one wonders at what cost – to produce ‘pure’ water from the Heretaunga aquifer.
Section 4.2 of the Chinese National Food Safety Standards for Bottled Drinking states: “Name of bottled water shall be real and scientific. Not name bottled drinking water after one of several substances’. OnePure? Miracle Water?
Whatever treatment is involved, if manufacturing and exporting ‘pure’ water is to be the region’s silver bullet replacing fading oil and gas prospects, our exporters need to be fully compliant, or the ‘Hawke’s Bay Pure Water’ brand will quickly turn foul.
Business Hawke’s Bay CEO Susan White says that issues of standards should be addressed at the national level, but adds: “Our international brand in the food and beverage industry is recognised as ‘high end’ or ‘premium products’. If there is a systemic problem within a company it needs to be dealt with very seriously and swiftly.”
Consultant Haselhoff admonishes: “It is essential we maintain the opportunity to export New Zealand water. We must get it right. New Zealand could be a big player in the bottled water industry … Avoidable problems, such as those fashioned by Miracle Water, are bad for our New Zealand brand. It could damage the entire industry.”
“I listen to all the arguments as to why bottling water is fine but I find it morally wrong for our water to be given away, and sent overseas with no local added value.”
CYNTHIA BOWERS, HASTINGS DEPUTY MAYOR
The market beckons
The International Bottled Water Association reports that the consumption of bottled water in China reached 39.5 million cubic metres last year. At 15% of the global market, China is the top market for bottled water. Globally, bottled water is the world’s fastest growing beverage, reaping enormous profits for corporate giants Nestle and Coca-Cola.
Steven Solomon, author of Water, said: “For the first time in history, the fundamental economic and political rules governing water are starting to be transformed by the power of market forces. Under the duress of scarcity, the iron laws of supply and demand are propelling the market economy’s expansive, profit-seeking mechanisms to colonize the realms of water. Beckoning bonanza profit opportunities have set off a world-wide scramble to control water sources and infrastructures, and to commercialise water as an ordinary commodity like oil, wheat, or timber.”
The idea of Hawke’s Bay becoming a part of this “commercialisation of water” is not sitting comfortably with many members of our community.
Cynthia Bowers, deputy mayor of Hastings comments: “I can see two aspects of this, the logical commercial side, where I would normally sit … and the emotional and environmental aspects. With this one I find myself in the ‘other camp’. This is an unusual experience for me. I listen to all the arguments as to why bottling water is fine but I find it morally wrong for our water to be given away, and sent overseas with no local added value.”
HBRC have framed the water bottling issue around the resource quantity and effects of extraction. Maxwell says: “One good thing is that the council is not picking ‘winners’ – it is left to the market to decide.” Maxwell was referring to the ‘first come, first served’ approach to allocating resource consents.
He adds: “The community might need to get used to changes in the market. Internationally water is becoming scarce, but in New Zealand we have a good supply. All our indicators across Hawke’s Bay tell us there is no widespread scarcity, it is only some areas within the aquifer system where river flows might be effected”.
However, in April HBRC released a report documenting steady decline in Heretaunga aquifer levels over the 1994-2014 study period, with data indicating the decline could stretch back 45 years. The probable cause … groundwater pumping.
Despite the ‘assurances’ from HBRC, Councillor Bowers is not satisfied. “I am not a scientist and I am having to accept the HBRC science that I am being told – I am struggling with this! The community’s faith in HBRC has been shaken. I am sure they have a great science team but I can’t understand this. No one is really going out of their way to explain the proof that it’s fine to keep extracting the current amounts of water out of our aquifer. I feel HBRC have an attitude of ‘We are right! You are wrong!’”
Both Bowers and Maxwell agree that over the last two decades people’s attitude towards water and the environment has changed. Maxwell comments: “I have seen a lot of changes in the last twenty years, I am pleased that the community are taking an interest in the value of water, it’s a catalyst for discussion”. Bowers concludes: “It’s a philosophical question. Should we be giving our water away for foreign export? I am not convinced from an environmental, social, and economic point of view it’s a good idea. I call for the Regional Council to look at placing a moratorium on the granting of further water consents for bottling plants.”
HBRC councillor Peter Beaven calls the current handling of our water “nonsensical”. “Existing New Zealand policy is that no one owns the water, the water is free and is allocated on the ‘first come, first in’ basis. Here lies the problem. We have got to stop saying no one owns the water. Everyone owns the water. The local community own the water. When we start seeing it from this point of view we can re-frame the discussion.”
In 1968 ecologist Garrett Hardin popularised the ‘tragedy of the commons’ concept, in which individuals acting in their own best interest over-use and deplete an unregulated common resource – such as the Heretaunga aquifer. Short-term private gain degrades long-term public good. The inability to restrict usage encourages individuals to consume as much of the resource as possible.
In contrast, Nobel economist Elinor Ostrom studied successful shared commons around the world, and found that by working together people managed their systems for the benefit of all. Some two billion people live successfully within such managed commons in the world today.
Beaven is thinking along these lines. He proposes: “The local community should be able to decide who can use the water based on a set criteria with clearly defined boundaries. These criteria could include aspects of efficiency of water use, environmental impacts, the social costs and benefits of an activity, what the industry brings back into the community – the circulation of wealth. Possibly we could charge some type of resource rental or royalties to an industry where the profits leave New Zealand. The point is that it is not right that the local community do not receive any type of benefit from the bottled water industry. We need to ensure the water will benefit the future generations of Hawke’s Bay.”
“We have got to stop saying no one owns the water. Everyone owns the water.”
Craig Foss, National MP for Tukituki reflects the party line: “The government’s position is plain! No one owns the water!” What this means for our future is unclear.
Anna Lorck, Tukituki Labour spokesperson says: “It is time we put all the facts on the table, encouraged and engaged with everyone, so I’d support calling for a referendum and raising this question at this year’s local government elections. As for charging users of water, again this is for the community to decide. For me, great things grow in Hawke’s Bay, not plastic bottles.”
The real issue being raised by our political commentators is under what conditions, if at all, we would be happy with water bottling. At present, the people of Hawke’s Bay are not satisfied. Sufficiency of renewable water supply, relative to other needs, and financial compensation to our community for the exploitation of our water are the critical questions. Both of these require substantial investigation.
“When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac.
In the meantime, we bottle away.